ASHEVILLE – Despite some early fall forecasts otherwise, last year ushered in a glorious leaf season, akin to the vibrant foliage of years past, said Beverly Collins, who compared the colors to her first experiences in the area 15 years before.
But as August winds down, with no guarantee of cold weather on the near horizon and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicting slightly elevated temperatures in its current three-month outlook, Collins said the Western North Carolina area may be looking at a fall foliage season more like recent years prior to 2022 — later turns, asynchronous change and a chance of less vibrant colors.
“And so fall color lasts into November, but the peak is not as close together,” Collins said. “We return to a year that is maybe not as bright and not as peaky as last year, but maybe a little more like the years before.”
Collins, who was a biology professor, now professor emerita, and fall foliage forecaster at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, retired in July. However, she retains her forecasting mantle as, she explained, laughing, they haven’t found an official replacement quite yet.
Color change is triggered by two main variables: shortening days and cooling temperatures, Collins said, and sunny, but not hot, days and cool nights are prime conditions for vibrant pigment. Warmer temperatures through October could delay or mute colors, and, as was also warned of last year, hurricanes and tropical storms can pose some threat to fall foliage.
As always with such forecasts, Collins cautioned that it is still early in the season to accurately predict the fall foliage, and timing of fall colors is highly dependent on how the weather plays out in September.
As climate change makes temperatures slightly warmer than the historical average more the norm, so too will the later turns for leaves, she said, with fall colors likely coming a few days to a week later than a more “traditional” season. However, if weather continues “hot and dry,” Collins said people could notice individual plants and leaves turning earlier, especially in the forest understory, where species like poison ivy and Virginia creeper often change color first.
When are experts predicting leaves will begin to turn?
In years deemed “on time,” high-elevation sites, such as Graveyard Fields and Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway, with elevations sitting above 5,000 feet ― compared to Asheville’s approximately 2,200 feet elevation ― could begin to turn the first week of October, said Howard Neufeld, professor of plant eco-physiology at Appalachian State University in Boone who also runs the “Fall Color Guy” Facebook page. In the case of cold weather, it could begin by the end of September.
In the 3,000-4,000-foot elevation range on the parkway, which hugs the spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains for 469 miles from Virginia to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Cherokee, the colors could begin to turn in mid-October, from Oct. 10 to Oct. 20.
In the third week, from Oct. 20 to the end of the month, fall colors could begin to peak in the city of Asheville, around the Biltmore Estate and in Hendersonville.
If things continue as they are — relatively warm, moderate rainfall — then Collins predicts slight delays in peak color, as does Neufeld, based on the NOAA long-range forecast. Specifically, Neufeld said he would guess three-five days late this year, though “otherwise all conditions point to a good fall color season,” he said, with no drought, no major diseases and no new insect infestations he is aware of.
Are delays the new normal?
Recently, Neufeld said, peak times are getting “more variable,” making fall color harder to predict, but it’s too early to call delays a “new normal.” Not yet statistically significant, he said this may be a transition time and the next five years could see the marker for “on-time” moving several days later.
“In recent years, it’s more likely it could be delayed than it was in previous years, but it could just as likely be on time. It’s like flipping a coin,” Neufeld said.
He called the 2022 season “one of the best color years in the last 15, 20 years. And it was right on time, the historical time.” It had a wow-factor that resonated up the east coast, with extra bright colors even reported in New England.
“Since last year was kind of an exceptional year, it’s hard to know if we’ll have two exceptional years in a row,” he said.
When considering temperature conditions, he said it’s less about the early months of the season, like May and June, and more about the later ones: “The single month with the strongest effect on fall color is September,” and people should hope for “nice, crisp fall days.”
“I think things are looking pretty good,” he added, the only hesitation coming from the long-range forecast.
Collins said people hoping for vibrant colors can cross their fingers for those longed-for sunny, cool days in September and “a nice cold snap.”
Looking out her window, she could see a little maple in her yard, beginning to turn.
Sarah Honosky is the city government reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA TODAY Network. News Tips? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or message on Twitter at @slhonosky. Please support local, daily journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.