In just a matter of days, forests of Maine have exploded with vibrant color. The beauty of fall foliage is upon us, and it’s predicted to reach its peak throughout much of the state this weekend, Oct. 12 through Oct. 13.
“I know we’ve had our ups and downs with the weather being a little unseasonable,” said Gale Ross, who has served as the fall foliage spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry for 16 years. “I would have thought we would be a few days [late], but I believe we’re pretty much on track.”
Historically, this is a big weekend for tourism in Maine. Fall foliage is usually at its height, plus the weekend is lengthened with Indigineous Peoples’ Day on Monday, Oct. 14.
“We’re advocating that this isn’t your parent’s [way of viewing] fall foliage,” Ross said. “We’re encouraging people to get out on ATVs and bikes and hiking trails and really get out into the meat of the foliage and try to see it different ways than just doing a driveby.”
Working with Maine forest rangers and state park staff, Ross compiles weekly reports throughout fall foliage season, emailing them each Wednesday to foliage report subscribers. She also posts the reports on Facebook and the state-run website, mainefoliage.com.
Based on years past, Ross called this a “typical” foliage season for Maine.
“I know folks were worried about the warm September [affecting Maine’s fall foliage], but it typically is about all the weather going forward, and shorter days followed by long cool nights,” Ross said. “That’s what really brings about the color.”
While the transformation of Maine’s trees in the fall is certainly magical, it’s also chemical. Leaves change color when decreasing day length and temperatures cause them to stop producing green chlorophyll, according to a bulletin on the process published by the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. The remaining chlorophyll then breaks down and the green pigment disappears, revealing yellow and orange pigments that already exist in the leaves.
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In addition, some trees, such as sugar maples, produce anthocyanins, which are pigments that turn leaves red, and sometimes purplish or even blue.
“Things that promote good leaf color are a balance of warm, sunny days and plenty of rain, and cold nights — but not below freezing,” said UMaine cooperative extension educator Kathryn Hopkins. “The whole process is weather dependent.”
While rain can contribute to brighter fall foliage, it can also cause leaves to fall to the ground early. Wind events can also strip leaves from trees. This has happened, to a small degree, in parts of Maine this year.
“I’m seeing a little bit of leaf drop, but I think that’s because — at least down here in central Maine — we’ve had a little wind-whipped rain,” Ross said. “But it’s still gorgeous. I wouldn’t hesitate to tell people to come up here this weekend for the foliage.”
The state fall foliage report uses the word “peak” to describe a time when 70 to 100 percent of the leaves have changed color. That’s expected to happen this weekend.
Trees growing along roadsides and swampy areas tend to change first due to environmental stressors. And oak trees are usually the last tree species to change color, Ross said. They put on a final show of orange and gold late in the season.
“I think for this holiday weekend, most areas will be at peak,” Ross said. “Then perhaps we’ll have another week and a half of foliage conditions to report based on past years.”