Fall color forecast: Vibrant with a high chance of gold

Rainfall and sunlight play a role in just how brilliant fall foliage turns out. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

Washingtonians — and millions of tourists — are used to flocking to the Tidal Basin to check out the cherry trees in spring.

But come fall, other trees steal the show as their leaves turn crimson, gold and a variety of shades in between.

This year, John Seiler, a professor of forest biology at Virginia Tech, said he expects a fiery display.

“The forest is in really good shape water-wise. There’s a lot of moisture in the soil because we’ve gotten so much water here in the last month,” Seiler said.

That’s a good thing, because a lack of moisture in the soil can stress trees, he explained.

“They’ll tend to be a little less vibrant in the red colors, “and the color change can come early.”

Seiler also said that can have another effect: “They’ll tend to drop their leaves a little early.”

While moisture levels in the soil can impact color, other things are in play, too, such as the species of tree in question.

“Hickories are going to turn yellow,” said Seiler. Meanwhile, scarlet oaks are going to be, as the name might suggest, scarlet.

Along with rainfall, light plays a role in the development of fall colors. Seiler explains that if you were to take an index card and block the leaf of a tree that normally turns red, it won’t change color: “They only produce red when there’s bright, bright light,” he said.

West Virginia and Maryland see their share of leaf peepers flock to the forests to enjoy fall colors, and Seiler says the size and health of Virginia’s forests mean you don’t have to go far to enjoy fall colors.

“Virginia is still over 60% forested,” he said. “That’s actually higher than back in the 1950s.”

The biodiversity in Virginia’s forests also helps ensure that fall colors won’t disappoint. Even with the threat of emerald ash borers, the commonwealth’s forests remain healthy.

“If we had some new disease that came in and decimated oaks — the majority of trees in Virginia — that would be a different story,” Seiler said.

Asked if he had his own favorite location to enjoy fall foliage, Seiler told WTOP, “It’s hard to have a favorite spot … you can travel in almost any direction and you can find good fall color because we’re in the mountains.”

It’s likely this year’s autumn leaves will be at their peak from mid- to late October.

You can find more information on leaf-peeping in both Virginia and Maryland online.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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