Muted fall foliage color predicted overall, but some trees might stand out

Some trees handle drought better than others, and those that don’t are already dropping leaves. That does not bode well for fall foliage colors in 2019.

“This is so acute in this case. The drought is making the leaves fall off and so they’re just not going to be there for color to look at,” said John Seiler, Virginia Tech professor of forestry in the college of natural resources and environment.

Trees that typically respond early to the season change, such as black gum, are already practically empty. Yellow poplars that prefer more moisture have dropped about 70% of their leaves.

“This is a good five weeks, I’d say, early. A month to five weeks early,” Seiler said, of the conditions in Virginia.

This September is tied for the driest on record in D.C. as of Friday, with little to no rain in the forecast.

“There’s only been 0.11 inch of rain — that’s 11 hundredths,” National Weather Service meteorologist Ray Martin said. “The current driest, besides this month, is 2005.”

Moisture available to trees can fluctuate dramatically over small distances relative to pop-up storms, locations on hillsides and elevation, so some trees might stand out with brilliant displays of color.

“We still will have some good trees to go look at,” Seiler said. If there’s rain, he said trees can recover from drought conditions quickly.

As for trees with plenty of remaining leaves, when might they reveal their best colors?

That can be influenced by rain, obviously, and overnight temperatures, which might shift color changes by about seven days. But, Seiler said, the most reliable factor for color change is length of daylight, which shifts dependably at the same time every year.

“The critical day length. That’s why I always look for [the change] the third, or fourth week of October into the first week of November,” he said.

You can explore conditions along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park on the park’s Facebook page. Through fall, each Thursday at 2 p.m., park rangers do a livestream to give updates on fall in general and tips for visiting the park. But remember, conditions can change quickly.

Here are some tips for visiting on the last weekend of September:

“The Park is over 100 miles long and spans a wide elevation range. Fall color conditions can vary dramatically from area to area. Weather affects the color from day to day and even hour to hour. It is impossible to predict a peak,” the park’s website states.

You can track fall foliage in Maryland on the Department of Natural Resources website.

Nationwide, predictions for 2019 fall foliage can be found on the Smoky Mountains website.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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