Why is There Such Beautiful Fall Color in Michigan?

Michigan, a state of rolling hills and deciduous forests, is a wonderful place to be in early fall. Do you know why our trees put on such a brilliant show this time of year?

Trees use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into sugar to feed the tree in a process called photosynthesis. But when winter comes and there is less sunlight and water to absorb, the trees need to conserve their energy to make it through all of the cold days until spring.

Most of the time, of course, the leaves on deciduous trees are green and not red, yellow, or brown. This is because of chlorophyll, a pigment produced by leaf cells. Chlorophyll is not the only pigment, though: leaves also contain carotenoid, which in various concentrations produces yellow, orange, and brown colors, and, at times, anthocyanin, which produces red. Chlorophyll and carotenoid are present in leaves all of the time, but chlorophyll is much more important; chlorophyll is necessary for the tree to feed itself. It isn’t until the tree senses, via cooler temperatures and shortened days, that winter is coming, that it begins to scale back its production of chlorophyll and begin to produce anthocyanin. Anthocyanin is produced in order to recover what nutrients are still in the tree’s leaves before they fall off. So as the leaves lose chlorophyll and gain anthocyanin, they turn yellow, orange, red and brown. And Michiganders all over the state get out their cameras to record the performance. They can’t help it: these drowsy trees are so beautiful before they begin their winter’s nap.

So where and when are the best places for fall color in Michigan? Well, in the northern part of the state the best time to see it will be this weekend, October 11 and 12. The Fall Color Blog reports that there will be 75 percent saturation in St. Ignace, and that the color is looking good. In Charlevoix and Harbor Springs the color appearing this year is spectacular, and it’s just behind that in the Upper Peninsula. If you want to golf and see gorgeous color, Boyne Highlands is your place right now. Traverse City also looks good.

Traveling south, the color is a bit more delayed, again because temperatures are still warmer and days are a bit longer than at higher latitudes on the globe. Much of the Lower Peninsula, including West Michigan, will seek peak color in early to mid-October, and it will be even more delayed for the Metro Detroit area. So color enthusiasts will be in their element for the next three weeks as long as they have some spare travel time and access to a car.

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