Learn About the South's Fall Foliage in Sewanee, Tennessee

University of the South professor of earth and environmental systems Dr. C. Ken Smith gives us his favorite campus tour.

Mountainside covered in Tress with Orange and Yellow Leaves in Sewanee, TN
The landscape of the Domain includes deciduous forests as well as lakes, coves, waterfalls, and caves. Photo: Robbie Caponetto

It's fall, and the leaves are turning in Sewanee, Tennessee, home to the campus of The University of the South, which stretches over 13,000 hiking trail-threaded acres of the Cumberland Plateau. The incredible landscape is blanketed by deciduous forests, which are burnished with color in autumn. The oaks begin yellowing like the pages of an old manuscript, the maples put on a fiery crimson show, and the ginkgoes fairly glow.

Dr. C. Ken Smith of The University of the South in Sewanee, TN
Dr. C. Ken Smith has been on the college’s faculty for 22 years and has also served as university forester. Robbie Caponetto

"The fact that our campus is where it is—that is such a huge benefit for the professors, the staff, and certainly our students. You just can't beat the Domain," says Dr. C. Ken Smith, former university forester and current co-chair of the school's Department of Earth and Environmental Systems. The Domain functions as an expansive outdoor classroom for environmental science courses as professors regularly decamp to hiking trails for their lectures and students learn the different shapes of the leaves while walking beneath them. Many Sewanee graduates have fond memories of the Domain and its trees, as well as classes conducted at overlooks with views stretching for miles. "For a school of our size, we have one of the best environmental programs in the country. When we teach about geology, biology, forestry, and environmental studies, it's easy for us to go out and show the students what we're talking about," said Smith.

Each year, the palette of autumn is displayed a little differently, as the trees change their colors in patches or in great waves rushing southward across the region. Throughout the Domain, you can see these transitions in action. In 2013, the campus was designated as a Tennessee Certified Arboretum by the Tennessee Urban Forestry Council, and now 120 different species of trees and more than 30 shrubs are accompanied by plaques labeled with their botanical and common names, including a "moon tree" (which grew from a sycamore seed that traveled to space) and pines planted in Manigault Park to mark a 1911 Presidential visit. When touring the campus, you can pick up a map at a kiosk near Convocation Hall to explore the Domain and its many trees, each of which tells a story that becomes even more vivid in autumn.

Fall Break

Of the autumn turn, Smith said, "When environmental conditions start to change and the chlorophyll in the leaves begins to break down, other pigments are able to express their colors. The chlorophyll that reflects green light disappears, and the red and yellow pigments become predominant."

Sense of Place

"Every time they build something new on campus, a piece of the structure that's highly visible is made out of wood from the Domain. That's a great sustainability lesson for our students because we can show them where the wood was harvested and what that species of tree looks like," explained Smith.

Red Leaf on the ground at The University of the South in Sewanee, TN
Robbie Caponetto

Changing Hues

"On campus, the colors vary from year to year. The more spectacular species are black gums, red maples, and sugar maples," said Smith. The leaves of maples, which are toothed with three to five pointed lobes, turn crimson, yellow, or orange in fall.

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