"All things weather-related point to a good fall color season for the mountains of North Carolina," says Dr. Howard S. Neufeld, PhD, professor of biology, Appalachian State University.

By Perri Ormont Blumberg
August 25, 2020
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For those lucky enough to live or have spent time in Asheville, North Carolina, in the autumn, they know how magic the fall foliage is among the Blue Ridge Mountains. To help make it easy for leaf peepers to know what's in store, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau has launched a comprehensive guide to fall foliage in the region and an interactive fall color map. We're already scoping both out to get a lay of the land for the coming season.

This year, of course, amid the coronavirus pandemic, fall travel, and even everyday excursions are looking very different. To that point, Dr. Howard S. Neufeld, PhD, professor of biology, Appalachian State University, stresses the importance of being safe when you venture into the public, even outside in nature: “Take precautions when you are hiking or at scenic overlooks. Trails are narrow and when others are coming from the opposite direction, they will come into close proximity to you. If you can, step aside to let others go by so that you can be a safe distance (~6’) away as they pass. Always put on your mask when people pass, even in the great outdoors.”

With that important information in mind, what can you expect to see in this majestic nook of the country in the coming months? "Moderately dry, cool, sunny weather is best to bring out the brightest fall leaf colors, especially the reds. September, and in particular, the latter half of the month, is when these criteria are crucial," says Neufeld, noting that the state has had adequate rainfall all spring and summer and that the timing of fall foliage is highlight dependent on elevation. This fall Neufeld says some species to look for include dogwoods (which are already turning red, but will hold onto their leaves into October), sourwoods, red maples, birch and tulip poplar, beech, black gums, red and scarlet oaks, and magnolias.

Country roads and endless vistas...

Left: Photo: ExploreAsheville.com
Right: Photo: ExploreAsheville.com

"If it is warm in September, then leaf colors become desynchronized, that is, some trees turn at their regular times because they are cueing primarily on day length, while others delay their colors because they cue in on temperatures, and warm temps delay the onset of coloration. This tends to spread out the leaf colors and you don’t get that 'explosion' of color if the trees turn color more synchronously," Neufeld explains. "It is the morning lows that are most important at this time of year for stimulating leaf color changes. If the weather is cloudy and the nights do not cool off, then colors are delayed and less vibrant." (For more on why trees change color, read The Grumpy Gardener's article here.)

In terms of the chances of standout fall foliage, the signs are looking encouraging. "Most people think the colors look best when there is an abundance of bright red colors to contrast against the orange, yellow and browns of the other species. So, if the weather is conducive to bright red leaves this year, we should have a brilliant fall color season. All things weather-related point to a good fall color season for the mountains of North Carolina," says Neufeld. "But to emphasize one more time, what happens in September will be crucial for deciding the exact timing and intensity of colors."

Meanwhile, over at Biltmore Estate, the famed 19th century home erected for George Washington Vanderbilt II,  everyone is gearing up for the fall season as well. “The heat and afternoon thundershowers of summer will soon be a memory as the seasons begin to change in October. Late summer garden annuals perk up with the cooler nights, only to be replaced with chrysanthemums later in the month. We plan fall floral displays to provide good color in October, with peak bloom through the middle of the month," shares Parker Andes, the property's director of horticulture, in Biltmore's fall color forecast.

ExploreAsheville.com

"As the gardeners are planting out fall floral designs in the display beds, the first autumn leaf color starts to show in our native dogwood and sourwood trees along the roadsides and pastures. These early trees hold color through the season and add to peak color at the end of October with sugar maples, red maples, hickory, and gum trees giving the best show. I especially enjoy walking the gardens in October to see some of the best fall color up close on Japanese maples, woody shrubs, ferns, and other perennials," he continues. Come November, some century-old red and white oaks and fall grasses in the Deer Park below the house create stunning scenery at the grounds.

Another great place for chasing colorful leaves in the area? Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park, a much-loved natural attraction just south of Asheville at a lower elevation—and a testament to just how long the foliage season can last in Western North Carolina.

“Fall color in the lower elevations along the Blue Ridge Escarpment comes later than in our surrounding areas. Typically we experience peak color in late October or early November. It's hard to say yet what to expect this year," says Emily Walker, director, Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park. "Hopefully, we will have plenty of sunny days and cool nights in September to encourage vibrant colors. Either way between beautiful fall wildflowers and the changing leaves we anticipate a colorful season.”

After a trying and tumultuous spring and summer, a burst of vibrant, kaleidoscopic color palettes—even if we're just scoping out foliage photos online from afar—is exactly what our hearts crave.