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Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?

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This staghorn sumac displays beautiful autumn color.

This staghorn sumac displays beautiful autumn color. Leaf pigments change in response to temperature, pH, and light.

Martin Ruegner, Getty Images

Question: Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?

Answer: When leaves appear green, it is because they contain an abundance of chlorophyll. There is so much chlorophyll in an active leaf that the green masks other pigment colors. Light regulates chlorophyll production, so as autumn days grow shorter, less chlorophyll is produced. The decomposition rate of chlorophyll remains constant, so the green color starts to fade from leaves.

At the same time, surging sugar concentrations cause increased production of anthocyanin pigments. Leaves containing primarily anthocyanins will appear red. Carotenoids are another class of pigments found in some leaves. Carotenoid production is not dependent on light, so levels aren't diminished by shortened days. Carotenoids can be orange, yellow, or red, but most of these pigments found in leaves are yellow. Leaves with good amounts of both anthocyanins and carotenoids will appear orange.

Leaves with carotenoids but little or no anthocyanin will appear yellow. In the absence of these pigments, other plant chemicals also can affect leaf color. An example includes tannins, which are responsible for the brownish color of some oak leaves.

Temperature affects the rate of chemical reactions, including those in leaves, so it plays a part in leaf color. However, it's mainly light levels that are responsible for fall foliage colors. Sunny autumn days are needed for the brightest color displays, since anthocyanins require light. Overcast days will lead to more yellows and browns.

 

 

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