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See You Next Autumn, Dude

Frost, Black oak, Frémont cottonwood and bigleaf maple, Castle Crags (12/3/20) Philip Reedy

It was unseasonably warm on the final day of autumn. Temperatures rose to the high 50s in Sacramento and were predicted to rise to 65° in Downieville where Philip and Jane Reedy were headed to take fly fishing photographs.

However, when they arrived at Phil’s favorite “secret spot” along the North Yuba River, he was surprised to find winter’s icy finger frosting the last fallen leaves of autumn.

Phil got his shot, and I got to share a frozen finish to fall color.

Today is the first day of winter. That means CaliforniaFallColor.com has stopped reporting fall color regularly, until next September. So, I’ll see you next autumn, dude.

Frost, white alder, bigleaf maple, North Yuba River (12/20/20) Philip Reedy
  • California – Past Peak, You Missed It.
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Orange Friday

It’s Orange Friday, the day following Thanksgiving Day when California overcomes tryptophan-induced lethargy and goes outdoors to enjoy fall color before it’s gone.

On the San Francisco Peninsula, tall gingko biloba are littering city streets with gold.

Elsewhere in the Bay Area, American beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) provide holiday ornamentation at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden and fallen leaves are now strewn across Berkeley.

Down south, the place for peak color is the LA County Arboretum and Botanic Gardens in Arcadia. Orange-toned crepe myrtle (Lagerstroemia) now dominate and more color is revealed each day to mid December.

Along the American River, cyclists, skaters and walkers on the 32-mile American River Parkway are enjoying one of the most colorful autumns in memory.

In the Gold Country, “Maple Lane,” a boulevard of maples leading to the Empire Cottage at Empire Mine SHP is at peak and will remain good through this weekend. So, spend your Orange Friday weekend being filled with the beauty of this lovely and historic place.

Maple Lane, Empire Mine SHP (11/25/20) Steve Arita

Or at old Monterey where gingko biloba, Asian maple and sycamore dress city streets with gold, yellow and chartreuse-colored leaves.

But, don’t plan to go swimming in Davis where backyard pools are covered with leaves.

Backyard pool, Davis (11/26/20) Philip Reedy

Unless you’re a duck. This pintail drake just enjoyed his morning bath at the Colusa NWR.

Morning bath, Pintail duck drake, Colusa NWR (11/25/20) Philip Reedy

Today is just another Orange Friday. It’s a day best spent outdoors enjoying fleeting moments of California Fall Color.

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Statewide Summary

Courthouse Square, Quincy (10/28/20) Philip Reedy

Now that the skies have cleared of haze almost entirely across the Eastern Sierra, wouldn’t you know it? Fall color is mostly past peak.

There is peak color to be seen along US 395, but it no longer compares with the overwhelming beauty photographed two weeks ago. Now to appreciate autumn’s display, in the Eastern Sierra, you need to be inspired by the contrast of bare limbs beside others laden with deep color.

The best remaining color in Inyo County is found at the bottom of Bishop Creek Canyon, in Pine Creek Canyon where lush stands of black cottonwood are found, in the Round Valley where old cottonwood shade decaying shepherd’s shacks and at the Buckley Ponds near Bishop where soaring trees reflect their golden boughs upon still waters.

North along US 395 in Mono County, Twin Lakes is the last great remaining holdout still to peak fully. The legendary June Lake Loop is now capped with a cerulean sky (wildfire smoke has cleared away), though its long boulevards of aspen are a shattered mix of still-green, peaking gold and brown leaves and, of course, barren branches. Hikers trekking to Lundy Lake still enjoy color at the start of the trail, but as they reach the beaver ponds, it dwindles and a chill breeze alerts them that winter is approaching.

Peak has ended over Tioga Pass, Sonora Pass, Ebbetts Pass, Monitor Pass and Carson Pass. Only Echo Summit, Donner Pass and Yuba Pass have yet to peak fully. The Hope Valley is officially past peak and this is likely the last week of peak at Lake Tahoe. 

Even in Plumas County at the northern end of the Sierra, peak fall color is disappearing. The county’s famous sugar maples are now denuded, their orange leaves spin behind passing cars. Downtown Quincy remains a hold out with big color surrounding the Plumas County Courthouse.

Increasing numbers of Past Peak reports does not mean the show has ended. Peak has just dropped in elevation to between 3,500 and 6,000′, depending on location. Also, different species are now peaking.

Gone are the Pacific aspen. Arriving are the black oak, which display black limbs and deep orange leaves from Halloween into November. Bigleaf maple continue to dazzle with their gigantic gamboge leaves. And soon the vineyards, orchards and foothills will be dressed. While, long, undulating Vs of squawking geese indicate it’s time to head to the rice fields to see crane, heron, egrets, ducks and stilts posturing and preening. 

Throughout Plumas County’s Indian Valley a decided air of final harvest remains as gold and orange dominate. Peak fall color has moved to the northern end of the Sierra and southern Cascades, to embrace Lake Almanor, Susanville and arc through the Shasta Cascade toward the Trinity Alps, Marble Mountains and north coast.

We’ve heard little from color spotters in that part of California. They’ve been dealing with wildfires and Covid closures and only now are sending back photos of plants that had no idea the rest of the world had stopped. While we were focused on fighting fires and a virus, they’ve been turning color.

In Southern California, the exotics in the San Bernardino Mountains (notably Big Bear Lake and Lake Almanor) have been peaking for a week. Aspen are now past peak. Near Peak are black oak. Native trees at Oak Glen are between Patchy and Near Peak, with lots of color and activity among the U-pick orchards and farm stands.

Hike of the Week is a walk through downtown Quincy. CLICK HERE for the route.

Bike of the Week is the Lake Almanor Recreation Trail near Chester. An 18.9-mile lightly trafficked, dog-friendly bike/foot path connects Almanor West with Canyon Dam. The trail has a 830′ gain. This is a pine and fir forest with fall color mostly consisting of willows. Though, good color is found around the lake in Chester, along the south east shore and down CA-89 through the Indian Valley.

Indian Valley, CA-89 (10/19/20) Jeff Luke Titcomb

Peak of the Week and Drive of the Week is the Indian Valley (CA-89) between Quincy and Lake Almanor in Plumas County (northern Sierra). Orange black oak are brightening the route. Visit the Plumas County Courthouse in Quincy to look up into towering fully peaking trees at Courthouse Square.

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Why Don’t Evergreens Lose Their Leaves?

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Coastal Redwood, El Dorado Hills (9/7/17) John Poimiroo

Actually, they do.  It just doesn’t happen all at once, with few exceptions.

Evergreen trees have both broad leafs and needles. Madrone, magnolia and photinia are examples of broadleaved evergreens, while pine, fir, cedar, spruce, and redwood have needled leaves.

Evergreen needles can last anywhere from a year to 20 years, but eventually they are replaced by new leaves. When that happens, the old needles turn color and drop, but not all together and not as dramatically as deciduous trees (e.g., maple, oak, dogwood, alder, birch).

The reason needles are green is that they are full of chlorophyll which photosynthesizes sunlight into food for the tree. It also reflects green light waves, making the needles look green.

Needles, just like deciduous leaves, contain carotenoid and anthocyanin pigments. You just don’t see them until the green chlorophyll stops being produced. Once that happens, hidden carotenoids (yellow, orange and brown) emerge, as is seen in the above photograph.

Additionally, red, blue and purple Anthocyanins – produced in autumn from the combination of bright light and and excess sugars in the leaf cells – also emerge once the chlorophyll subsides.

Yes, even evergreen leaves change color… eventually.

Fremont cottonwood and coastal redwood, Davis (9/16/20) Phillip Reedy

Evergreens that drop leaves at one time include the: Conifers Larch, Bald Cyprus and Dawn Redwood.

In snowy regions, evergreen trees are able to carry snow because the waxy coating on needles, along with their narrow shape, allows them to retain water better by keeping it from freezing inside (which would otherwise destroy the leaf).

Needles also prevent snow from weighing down and breaking branches. Finally, needles allow an evergreen tree to sustain the production (though slowed) of chlorophyll through winter. Whereas, broadleaved deciduous trees would be damaged if they kept producing chlorophyll and didn’t drop their leaves.

Evergreen trees do lose their leaves and the leaves do change color. It just isn’t as spectacular. 

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Why Do Deciduous Trees Lose Their Leaves?

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Snowcreek (11/2/15) Alicia Vennos

It’s survival not just of the fittest, but of the wisest.

Deciduous trees drop their leaves in order to survive.  As days grow shorter and colder, deciduous trees shut down veins and capillaries (that carry water and nutrients) with a barrier of cells that form at the leaf’s stem.

Called “abscission” cells, the barrier prevents the leaf from being nourished. Eventually, like scissors, the abscission cells close the connection between leaf and branch and the leaf falls.

Had the leaves remained on branches, the leaves would have continued to drink and, once temperatures drop to freezing, the water in the tree’s veins would freeze, killing the tree.

Further, with leaves fallen, bare branches are able to carry what little snow collects on them, protecting them from being broken under the weight of the snow. So, by cutting off their food supply (leaves), deciduous trees survive winter.

The fallen leaves continue to benefit the tree through winter, spring and summer by creating a humus on the forest floor that insulates roots from winter cold and summer heat, collect dew and rainfall, and decompose to enrich the soil and nurture life.

It’s a cycle of survival, planned wisely. 

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Why do Leaves Change Color?

Chlorophyll Molecule (Wikipedia)

Leaves on deciduous trees change color in autumn from green to various hues of lime, yellow, gold, orange, red and brown because of a combination of shorter days and colder temperatures.

Throughout spring and summer, green chlorophyll (which allows trees to absorb sunlight and produce nutrients) is made and replaced constantly.

However, as days grow shorter, “cells near the juncture of the leaf and stem divide rapidly but do not expand,” reports Accuweather.com. “This action of the cells form a layer called the abscission layer.

“The abscission layer blocks the transportation of materials from the leaf to the branch and from the roots to the leaves. As Chlorophyll is blocked from the leaves, it disappears completely from them.”

That’s when vivid yellow xanthophylls, orange carotenoids and, due to a different process, red and purple anthocyanins emerge.

Orange is found in leaves with lots of beta-carotene, a compound that absorbs blue and green light and reflects yellow and red light, giving the leaves their orange color.

Yellow comes from Xanthophylls and Flavonols that reflect yellow light. Xanthophylls are compounds and Flavonols are proteins.  They’re what give egg yolks their color.

Though always present in the leaves, Carotenoids and Xanthophylls are not visible until Chlorophyll production slows.

Red comes from the Anthocyanin compound. It protects the leaf in autumn, prolonging its life. Anthocyanins are pigments manufactured from the sugars trapped in the leaf, giving term to the vernacular expression, “the leaves are sugaring up.”

The best fall color occurs when days are warm and nights are clear and cold. California’s cloudless skies and extreme range of elevations (sea level to 14,000′) provide ideal conditions for the development of consistently vivid fall color, as seen in these reports. 

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The Science of Changing Leaves

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Is red a defensive color? (11/22/18 – El Dorado Hills) John Poimiroo

Last year, Smithsonian.com posted a fascinating time-lapse video of leaves transforming from chlorophyll-filled green to tones of yellow, red and brown. The video was accompanied by an article explaining how leaves change color and some misconceptions about the process.

The video was created by Owen Reiser, a mathematics and biology student at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Reiser, Smithsonian.com reports, took 6,000 photos of leaves to weave the video together.

CaliforniaFallColor.com has reported previously how the change of leaf color results from the loss of chlorophyl, due to shorter days and fewer nutrients. Though, David Lee, Professor Emeritus of biological sciences at Florida International University and author of Nature’s Palette, The Science of Plant Color, says many (including us) have misreported (we won’t make the mistake again) that yellow and red leaves change the same way, when they do not.

Lee states in the Smithsonian.com article that the breakdown of chlorophyll in the leaves does reveal yellow and orange (carotenoids) hidden beneath, but that red (anthocyanin) pigments are produced within the leaves as they die.

There are two schools of thought as to why this happens. One is that the red color is a defensive measure to make the plants look an unhealthy red as the leaf dies, protecting it from plant-eating bugs and animals which are conditioned not to eat red foliage.

The other thought is that red is a form of photo protection. Horticulturist Bill Hoch, Smithsonian.com reports, believes red’s wavelength helps shield the leaf by absorbing excess light allowing the plant to more efficiently remove nitrogen from the proteins that are breaking down and send that nutrient back to tree limbs and roots, saving as much of it as possible before winter.

Whatever the cause, the result is spectacular and less than a month away from being seen in California.

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Climate, Conditions and Color

Smoke from the Rough Fire obscured aspen turning yellow at Lake Sabrina (8/24/15) John Poimiroo

Environmental changes affect fall color. California is experiencing a prolonged spate of hot, dry and smoky air. That dehydrates the soil and reduces photosynthesis, which affects fall color.

CaliforniaFallColor.com has been monitoring news reports of whether this autumn is predicted to be more colorful or less than in previous years. Sources in New Hampshire, Minnesota and Southwest Colorado predict dull color due to drought. North Carolina is getting mixed reviews. Wisconsin is estimated to have a normal autumn, and Maryland is optimistic for a vibrant Autumn due to moisture and hot days.

As for California, we conclude that the beauty of our show will depend upon conditions at specific locations and that no overall prediction for a given region with the state or California as a whole can be made with any reliability. Nevertheless, late summer hot, dry days and smoky air will dull fall color in many places.

“Soil moisture is essential to tree health, obviously, so if there has not been enough moisture at fall color time, color could be delayed, just plain dull, or leaves can die early without changing color,’’ Val Cervenka, forest health program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources was reported in the Duluth News Tribune, this week, as saying. “Trees that are under stress usually show it first in their leaves. Since so much of a tree’s energy goes into producing leaves, the tree can conserve energy by simply dropping the leaves, like it does before it goes dormant in the winter,” he continued.

Marissa Y. Thompson, Ph.D. of New Mexico State University wrote on the university’s website in 2001 that, “Plants can be affected in both a positive and negative manner by smoke.” She continued that “Smoke, produced by combustion of some material, means that there is increased carbon dioxide over a limited area. This is good for the plants and can increase their growth if there is sufficient light.

“The smoke particles that we see, however, are particulate pollution which can coat the leaf surface, reducing photosynthesis. These particulates can also clog stomatal pores, reducing gas exchange in the leaf. These effects are bad for plants,” Thompson concluded.

Science is often torn between two conclusions, i.e., more CO2 resulting from combustion is good for plants, however smoke particles can reduce photosynthesis which is not good for plants.

Our conclusion is that the smoke caused by this autumn’s earlier-than-usual wildfire season will, on the whole, not be good for fall color. Combined with hot, dry days it has desiccated the leaves on many trees – particularly those that were stressed from disease or localized drought. That means, less dramatic fall color.

Further, smoke particulates – should they remain soiling our air – will reduce the beauty of whatever fall color appears, because fewer light waves will make it through the smoky atmosphere to illuminate the leaves.

That’s a dismal prediction for this early in the year. So, we should note that it’s still two weeks from the Autumnal equinox and a lot can happen that could change this within the next month.

  1. It could rain. Some long-range forecasts predict rain at the end of September. Where moisture falls, forests will thrive, leaves will remain fresh and fall color will appear in dazzling displays.
  2. The air could clear. The number and ferocity of California’s wildfires have exceeded normality. They’ve been fed by lightning strikes, high temperatures and wind. A drop in any of these influences could return the state to a more normal fire season.

So, be informed, but don’t lose your enthusiasm. Despite the disappointing present, there will be bright spots of gorgeous fall color to find along the backroads and byways of California. And, when they can be seen, we will report them.

Orange Friday

Red maple, El Dorado Hills (11/26/19) John Poimiroo

There are three ways to spend the Friday following Thanksgiving Day:

  • Stand in line waiting to purchase stuff that will soon be forgotten,
  • Sit at home watching football games or
  • See the last bright splashes of fall color with friends and family.

My Orange Friday will be spent outside with friends and family, reveling in the moment when autumn brings us together.

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Giving Thanks and Looking Back at 2019

On this Thanksgiving Day, CaliforniaFallColor.com is thankful to the many color spotters and photographers who contributed reports, photographs and videos in 2019.

They include (from first leaf): Jeff Simpson, Martha Fletcher, Robert Kermen, Bob Simms, Lori Quillen, Julie Kirby, Donna Mercer, Dakota Snider, Jeff Luke Titcomb, Michael Beatley, Jared Smith, Anirudh Natekar, Michelle Pontoni, Justin Legge, John Ehrenfeld, Aaron Thom, Philip Reedy, Suzanne Kovacs, Mike Schaper, Alena Nicholas, Trent Vierra, Kathy Jonokuchi, Leor Pantilat, Dylan Ren, Dan Rastler, Ryan Boyd, Gigi de Jong, Laura Jean, Mark Harding, Elliot McGucken, Steve Shinn, Alicia Vennos, Liz Grans, Ann Hale-Smith, Clayton Peoples, Logan Alexander, Terry Willard, Kurt Lawson, Risa Wyatt, Jeri Rangel, Chien-Chang Kyle Chen, Fares Alti, Kent Gordon, Lance Pifer, Walt Gabler, Laura Christman, Gene Miller, Dan Varvais, Ravi Ranganathan, Jun Hong, Kathleen DiGregorio, Steve Arita, Roger Zhang, Mel Fechter, Shanda Ochs, Dan Mata, Gabriel Leete, Max Forster, Benjamin Vu, Son Nguyen, Vishal Mishra, Bea Ahbeck, Niven Le, Mark Hanning-Lee, Frank McDonough, Chance Gordon, Charles Hooker, Jim Adams, Susan Hanlon, Gillian Espinosa, Melani Clark, Mike Caffey, Anson Davalos, Deepa Yvaraj, Allison Hastings, Ben Carlson, Mohammed Hossain, John Jackson and Ron Tyler, who produced the above video.

Special thanks are expressed to Inyo County Tourism, Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau, Mono County Tourism, Mammoth Lakes Tourism, Redding Convention & Visitors Bureau, and the Shasta Cascade Wonderland Association for underwriting California Fall Color, and to the many reporters and media who carried our reports and gave attention to what we have shown about California’s fall color.

If we missed you, please know it wasn’t intentional. We are truly indebted to every contributor.

Of course, this list is incomplete without mentioning my wife, Joan, who has driven the car and pulled it to the shoulder so that I could jump out to photograph particularly beautiful locations; humored my recording of color percentages, species and elevations; pointed out spectacular color; and tolerated my exuberance in showing her countless stunning photographs taken by our contributors.

Of course, our deepest thanks go to the many tens of thousands of people who have read, followed, reacted and commented here and on our social media pages. You are, after all, the reason we do this.

Above is our video impression of autumn in California, this year. We produce a new video each autumn. To see them all, CLICK HERE.

The photographs selected for this year’s video represent: what happened this autumn, the extent and diversity of fall color across the state, and some of the finest photographs taken in 2019.

If you would like your photographs considered for inclusion in next autumn’s video, submit “horizontal” pictures of fall color taken in places not often photographed. As competition is stiffest among pictures taken at the most photographed destinations.

Autumn doesn’t end today. It continues for nearly a month longer. We’ll continue to post photos and reports, as received. Though today, we begin to dial back reports and will post them less frequently. We’ve also stopped sending  weekly reports to meteorologists, travel and outdoor writers.

So, enjoy your Thanksgiving Day and plan an Orange Friday of fall color spotting, tomorrow.

See you next autumn, dude.

California – Peak (75-100%) GO NOW! – In our hearts, California is always peaking.