Leaves might give us an autumn show after all

URBANA — Rumors of the demise of fall color in our local trees have been slightly exaggerated.

State climatologist Jim Angel said this summer's drought might make the prognosis for Technicolor leaves seem dire, but our recent weather has perked up the chances for a bit of display of natural beauty.

"A month ago, I was very concerned about the effects of the long drought," Angel said. "In the last couple weeks, temperatures have moderated. I have noticed the trees have stopped shedding leaves prematurely."

Look for maples to be among the first to sprout color, says Jeffrey Dawson, a professor emeritus of natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois.

A statewide drought has stressed trees, Dawson said, and early frost can also interfere with the chemical changes needed. He said it is too early to say with absolute certainty what mid-October trees will look like.

"Predicting this is more of an art than science," Angel said.

In the weeks to come, longtime nature photographer Michael Jeffords recommends shooting photos in Middle Fork Woods Nature Preserve in Kickapoo State Park, the Russel Duffin Nature Preserve in Forest Glen County Park near Westville, and "my personal favorite, Little Black Slough in (far southern) Johnson County."

"There is no better mid-October display anywhere," Jeffords said.

Photographing the leaves is best in early or late sun, or in a light overcast after a rain when color saturation is at the maximum, he added.

Angel said he's already seen maples start to turn.

"The recipe for fall color is the weather we have now: warm days, cool nights, but not below freezing. We want this to go on for a couple weeks," he said.

Another effect of the drought may be an early season. But some trees will not have a glorious autumn, because their leaves suffer "premature leaf drop."

Angel and Dawson agree that different trees will be affected in different ways.

"We have a row of sweet gums, and each one has its own personality," Angel said. For the survivors, Dawson said, sugars and other chemicals in leaves move back into the tree, which is part of the cycle of deciduous tree life.

The carbohydrates and other chemicals returning to the inner tree is a process somewhat similar to one that happens in humans.

"These chemicals are full of antioxidants that prevent free radicals from messing up tree chemistry," Dawson said.

Antioxidants perform the same benefit in our own bodies, he said.

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