Some trees in wet areas go red first, long before the others start turning. We call then "swamp maples," and they are usually sugar maples. The redness is a sign of anthocyanins, which the tree produces in order to extract sugar back from the leaves. The water holds the chill and signals Autumn to those trees earlier than the others, as early as late August. Distressed trees will turn red early as well. Once you follow the same trees year after year, you can notice that the same trees turn early. Natural variation within the species.
Earlier is generally brighter, more red, more orange, and in NH it is the maples which lead this. Sumac and Burning Bush will also produce bright reds, but are less common. The yellows turn later, sometimes much later. Beeches show enormous variety - I have a beech visible from my chair that is entirely brown at this point, while another about fifteen feet away is mostly light green still, just starting to turn yellow.
We speak often about "peak" foliage up here, with websites which track how far south it moves every day and where the best viewing is right this moment. We may be over-influenced by the movement of tourists and photographers in thinking like that, because it's not that simple. The brightest reds show before many of their maple cousins have much gotten started in turning yellow. The oranges come overlapping soon after and these are the electrically bright individual trees that get singled out for photography, or people driving half off the road to ooh and ahh. I think that when the oranges are still hanging on and the yellows are thoroughly under weigh is what we call peak foliage, and tell our friends from other places to get here for. In a bright sunrise or sunset against a good background it's hard to take your eyes off.
Yet the two weeks following may be better. Back roads will have related trees overhanging, and in slanted light you are in a tunnel of gold. No need for showy reds at that point, they would muck up the effect. One is already resigned to the disappearance of the dramatic colors and begins to write the rest of the season off prematurely, but notes cheerfully that there's still plenty to see. Yup. That's about it for this year. Well. I do like this partic'lar avenue though. I'll have to come back this same way later.
The oaks are an almost malevolent counterpoint throughout. They are dull green to start with, not even providing the enjoyable contrast that the bluer evergreens provide. They turn a more sullen green, then brown, and finally a dirty brown, many of the leaves hanging on defiantly through the winter. Yeah all those showgirls are gone now, eh? But we're still here. How d'ye like that, mistah?
Since moving to Kentucky I do miss the dramatic colors of the northeast Iowa/southwest Wisconsin/northwest Illinois area I lived in. We had quite a few New England transplants that brought maple varieties with them. We also had lots of yellows, I think from willows and poplars. Down here oaks and beeches predominate and most areas just go brown, with a sprinkling of gold or yellow and occasional dashes of red.
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