Autumn's just a day away!


Photo by Dave Boyd
A lone biker drives by one of the first turning maple trees along U.S. Highway 321/67 near Watauga Lake. Sugar composition in leaves contributes to the red-orange color. Autumn begins Tuesday.

Already, Mother Nature's making a spectacle of herself

By Kathy Helms-Hughes
STAR STAFF
khelms@starhq.com
According to the calendar, autumn begins Tuesday; but along U.S. Highway 321/67 that punctuates the banks of Watauga Lake, through Mountain City and into Boone, N.C., the trees have been going by Mother Nature's calendar.
And Mother Nature appears to be a jump ahead of everyone else. Already there are spotty blazes of red in the tree line, which soon will be followed by patches of gold, yellow, bronze -- even purple.
According to the Cherokee National Forest Service's fall foliage hotline, the fall color season is well on its way, though the forest service says it still doesn't have any significant changes in colors to report.
Colors usually peak first in the northern portion of the Cherokee, followed by areas farther south. Because Carter County is situated in the northeast portion, we already have begun to see changes.
The peak period varies from year to year and from area to area, with the last two weeks in October usually best for taking in a variety of colors. Weather conditions have a direct impact on how quickly the leaves change.
Keith Hart, agriculture extension agent for Carter County, said there are lots of things that influence the development of leaf color.
"In some years we think we're not going to have color, and they're still good. In certain years, it seems like the reds are more brilliant than other years. Usually most of this is related to the number of warm sunny autumn days and cool nights, but not those freezing nights. With those kinds of conditions, it's really going to be a good year for the reds," he said.
In daytime, leaves produce a lot of sugar, while the cool nighttime temperatures develop the sugar sap that flows through the veins, down the branches, and into the tree trunks, according to Hart.
"There's a chemical compound in there that kind of comes to the rescue. I think some of the researchers have found that these compounds kind of form a protection to the leaf. In those type of situations, just before the leaves fall off, then these reds begin to come through and you begin to see these brilliant shades of reds and purples and crimsons.
"Those years that we have those warm days and then the cool nights, but not freezing, those colors get better. And that's kind of what we've been experiencing now. If this continues like we're doing right now, we may see more brilliant shades of red and purple," he said.
Black gum trees probably contribute the darkest of the reds, almost a glossy red, he said.
"Locusts, cherry, and red bud -- I would like to say that the leaves are just pretty and hang onto the tree, but they're just not as dynamic as the poplars, the oaks, the red gums and some of the sweet gums' leaves. They go very quickly.
"Persimmons are another one. They turn a yellow, but they really don't seem to hang on long. They don't have a brilliant effect for any period of time. That doesn't mean they aren't good trees, as far as color is concerned, but in the fall they're not as brilliant as some of these others."
Yet in early spring, some of those trees are the prettiest. They just don't hold up in the season, he said.
"I don't believe you can drive anywhere in the world and it's prettier than it is right here. This is just a great time of year. Some people say, 'Well, I wonder what's coming next ...' but enjoy what you've got," Hart said.
The Cherokee National Forest's fall foliage hotline (1-800-204-6366) provides updated information about local viewing conditions. National fall color information is available online at www.fs.fed.us/news/fall/shtml or by calling 1-800-354-4595.
The forest service suggests several fall foliage-viewing routes in Northeast Tennessee.
* Elizabethton-Roan Mountain. From Elizabethton take U.S. Highway 19E/321 east toward Roan Mountain and the North Carolina border. When you get to Hampton you have the option of turning northeast on 321 toward Watauga Lake and on to Mountain City via State Route 67; or travel east on Highway 19E to Roan Mountain. Either route offers splendid vistas.
* Bristol-Mountain City: From Bristol take U.S. Highway 421 east by South Holston Lake and through Shady Valley toward Mountain City. To extend your trip, when you get to Mountain City, take State Route 67 through Pandora and along the shores of Watauga Lake to the U.S. Highway 321 intersection. Head west past Watauga Lake toward Hampton and on to Elizabethton.
* Greeneville-Newport: From Greeneville take State Route 70/107 southeast to where the road splits. Follow Highway 107 south through Houston Valley and across Brush Creek Mountain to the French Broad River where 107 ends at U.S. Highway 25/70. Turn west (right) and head toward Newport on Highway 25/70 along the French Broad River. There are many fall color-viewing opportunities along these routes.