Few springtime showers, a late Easter freeze that stressed trees in the region, and no sizable moisture this summer could result in a bummer for fans of fall color.
Richard Evans, director of the University of Tennessee Forest Resources Research and Education Center, said certain factors like soil condition, effects of frost damage in the spring, and the current lack of moisture have resulted in some leaves already falling.
He says the only thing that will unmask brilliant leaf color this fall is rain. Otherwise an early peak in color is expected.
“Some leaves have already wilted under great stress, causing more energy to be pulled out of the roots, resulting in less leaves on the trees,” said Evans.
“This is site and species dependent. If we can get some more rain, and sort of rejuvenate the trees, they may go ahead and follow the normal pattern for fall color-up, but it’s not going to be as brilliant or grand as in years past.
“To get those bright fall colors we have to get cool nights, bright sunny days and more moisture, and that trips the color change, but usually that really doesn’t reach us until mid-October. The lack of leaves is really going to hurt us.”
Species like sourwood and sumac will start showing their colors early, but Evans notes that a severe drought condition can bring about fall colors earlier than anticipated.
Reports from around Scott County near Rye Cove and in parts of Hawkins County have trees already beginning to turn.
The drought is continuing to starve the trees that depend on the photosynthesis process for food, Evans explained, which is chlorophyll.
Chlorophyll also gives trees their green color.
“Trees begin to slow down their energy-making process this time of year in preparation of the fall,” he said.
“The chlorophyll begins to recede, and the color transformation begins to the reds, oranges and yellows. This speed of the process is compounded by temperature, those cold days and enough sunlight to keep the tree going.
“Oaks and maples go through the process a little longer, so they keep their colors more before the leaf breaks off. But if the drought continues, everything could just turn to brown real quickly.”
More than 630,000 acres of national forest stretch from Bristol to Chattanooga, providing “leaf peepers” many opportunities to see fall color, according to Tennessee tourism officials.
Within those woods are 200 different species of trees, and the higher the elevation, the quicker their leaves will change, Evans said.
The Tennessee Department of Tourism will have a fall color hotline that provides locations where leaves are reaching their peak.
The number is 1-800-697-4200.