We have now just met my personal tipping spot where summer begins its annual slip into our colorful fall here in northwestern Pennsylvania.
The coming of the second-to-last Friday of September, which by the way was the 18th, is my tipping point for the year. To me, this is the last golden breath of summer. This is usually the last week before:
Cider pressing begins.
Blackberry and strawberry picking is over.
The first showing of color in the tree leaves
Noticeably lower temperatures.
My garden tomatoes are done for the year.
My annual flowers begin to wilt and die out.
I need to put my flip-flops away.
Of course, I live in Erie, on Lake Erie’s southern shore, and if you live anywhere else, my experience in late summer and early fall might vary somewhat with yours.
The woodlands of Presque Isle State Park overlooking Lake Erie and Presque Isle Bay are bathed in a striking swath of color every fall. There are always deep reds, golden yellows and apricot-orange. This rainbow of leaves will not be around forever. Most years, the duration runs about six weeks and can run longer and shorter than that depending on the fall weather conditions.
The calendar primarily regulates the timing of color changes and the onset of falling leaves as nights become longer. None of the other environmental influences like temperature and rainfall are as steady and unvarying as the length of nighttime. Science tells us that as days grow shorter or cooler, a biochemical process in the leaf begins to paint the landscape with nature’s fall colors.
These fall colors form a color palette, and three types of natural chemicals are involved in autumn colors.
Chlorophyll: This gives the basic green color. This is necessary for photosynthesis, a chemical reaction that enables plants to use sunlight to manufacture sugars for food.
Carotenoids: Produces yellow, orange, and brown colors in such things as corn, carrots, and flowers, buttercups, and bananas, and fall leaves.
Anthocyanin: This supplies colors to such things as cranberries, concord grapes, red apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries and plums.
All of the above are water-soluble and appear in the watery liquid in leaf cells. Both chlorophyll and carotenoids are present in the leaf cells throughout the growing season. Most anthocyanins are produced in the autumn in response to bright light and excess plant sugars within the leaf cells. Some leaves of a few species, such as elms, shrivel up and fall off the tree. They fall off, showing little or no color except a light drab brown.
Certain colors are characteristic of tree specific species:
Aspen and yellow poplar – golden yellow
Dogwood – purplish red
Red Maple – brilliant scarlet
Sugar Maple – orange-red
Black Maple – glowing yellow
Oaks – red, russet, or brown
Hickory – golden bronze
Beech – light tan
Cottonwood – yellow
Willow – yellow shading to gold
On Presque Isle, I have noticed that a succession of warm, sunny days and cool and brusque nights seem to bring about the most spectacular color displays. The reasons for that are that during warm days lots of sugars are produced in the leaves, but the cool nights make the veins going into the leaves begin to close, preventing the sugars from moving out. Conditions such as this — lots of sugar and light — spur production of the brilliant anthocyanin pigments, which tint reds, purples and crimson.
Evergreens: Pines, spruce, cedars, firs and so on can keep their needles and survive winters because they have toughened up in fall. Their needle-like foliage is covered with a heavy wax coating, and the fluid inside the cells has a substance that resists freezing. The needles survive many years and generally fall off due to old age.
What happens to all the fallen leaves? The leaves and needles that fall are not wasted. They will decompose and help build better soil. In the end, they make up part of the spongy humus layer of the woodland floor. This layer absorbs and holds the rainfall and dew. The fall leaves can and do become food for many soil organisms vital to the forest’s ecosystem.
Where on Presque Isle can you get the best fall foliage photos? That answer is easy: almost everywhere. If you want to see and photograph all fall colors on the park without breaking a sweat or getting wet feet from the higher water levels, you can bike, walk or hike along the Multi-purpose Trail around the park. All of this trail is paved, making the whole trail accessible to those who have trouble walking on uneven ground. Benches, picnic tables, educational signs, and restrooms are available at various locations along the way. Overall, this trail makes an excellent place to take your best shots on the park.
In addition, the Sidewalk Trail is another easy choice. It starts directly across the main road from the Presque Isle Lighthouse and runs all the way across the park to Misery Bay. You should note that sometimes the end of the trail at Misery Bay might be very wet or 2 to 3 inches deep in water due to Lake Erie’s current elevated levels.
Another reasonably easy fall walk starts at the Lighthouse Kiosk. It follows the Lake Erie shoreline east to Sunset Point, better known as Kite Beach, and returns on a little-used inland path used by the park staff and/or the Multi-purpose Trail back toward the lighthouse. That is about 1.8 miles, a short walk.
All things equal, this fall should produce some pretty bright and beautiful fall scenes all across Northwestern Pennsylvania. Take some time and ENJOY!
See you on the park!!
Gene Ware is the author of nine books and is on the board of the Presque Isle Light Station. He is a past chairman of the Tom Ridge Center Foundation and the Presque Isle Partnership. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org