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Massachusetts Fall Color Report

Don't blame the trees for a muted fall color display this year.

According to Andy Hillman, an arborist with the Davey Resource Group, April rains and Hurricane Irene are to blame for an usually drab autumn show. He shared his insights recently with The Herald News.

Read the story below or see it in The Herald News.


The Fall's Colors Just Don't Pop

By Kevin P. O'Connor, Herald News Staff Reporter

Photo: Jack Foley, The Herald News
No matter how pretty the weather might be right now, we know we are about to plunge into a season of cold, gray days.

Is it too much to ask for a spectacular display of foliage before winter descends?

This year, the answer is "yes."

Our foliage this October has been unusually drab. The whole year conspired to mute the fall colors — from the rain in April to Hurricane Irene.


“If there are fewer leaves on the trees, there is going to be less color,” said Andy Hillman, the arborist with Davey Resource Group, the company that looks after the city’s trees.

“If the leaves get blown off the trees in the windstorm, which they did this year, that matters. The number of leaves on the trees makes a big difference.”

But even before Hurricane Irene came roaring through this area on Aug. 28, the foliage season was shaping up poorly for us.

“After the spring we had and the summer we had, it wasn’t looking good,” Hillman said. Irene plus an warm, wet fall, have completed the process.
Basically, leaves start their lives red, yellow, orange or gold but turn green in the spring as they bask in the sun and produce chlorophyll.

As the days get colder and the nights longer, trees begin pulling the chlorophyll from the leaves to produce the sugars the trees need to get them through the winter. When the green chlorophyll exits the leaves, the underlying colors of the leaves are exposed.

With the first hard frost, the process accelerates. The leaves brighten and then drop.

Peak color lasts about three days — less if it is raining or windy, Hillman said.

But we haven’t had a killing frost yet — not even close.

“The weather really hasn’t been cooperating,” said Gail Read, the garden manager at Blithewold Mansion and Gardens in Bristol, R.I. “We’ve had warm nights. We haven’t had a frost. Here in Bristol, we haven’t even come close to a frost.

“Of course, that means we still have flowers. Our hydrangea are still in bloom and our roses are going strong.”

Fred Perry, a horticulturist at Blithewold, said the wet spring followed by a spell of hot, dry weather in June really stressed the trees this year. That weather also gave a variety of fungi a chance to get started. The warm damp fall let the fungi flourish, so leaves dried up and turned brown rather than orange or red.

The wind from the hurricane beat up a lot of leaves or tore them from the trees. In neighborhoods close to the shore, salt spray did its damage.

“We have a tree down near the water that is flowering now because it got so defoliated during Irene,” Perry said. “It is an older tree, well established, so it should be okay.

“A tree can tolerate defoliation, maybe even two years in a row, before it shows signs of decline.”

Though it dulled the foliage, the rain this fall helped the trees that were damaged in the hurricane by giving them plenty of moisture to get them through the winter, Perry said.

Not all the trees will recover. Fall River normally takes down 15 to 20 trees a year. Right now it has 100 on its list to be taken down, said Kenneth Pacheco, the city’s community maintenance director.

“It’s not a disease,” Pacheco added. “It is just trees that have gotten old or been neglected and this year did them in.”

But don’t fret. Healthy trees will survive this.

And, all around, there are gardens that are still in bloom.

“We still have rose bushes that are loaded with blooms,” Read, of Blithewold said. “It is still really beautiful. We have to appreciate that.”

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