Turning Green into Gold
Autumn leaves are one of my favorite things about this time of year. It’s amazing to see how many different colors emerge from the variety of trees and how spectacular it is when a large grove lights up the season for a few fleeting weeks.
While I can be in awe of how beautiful they are, I can’t resist finding out why the leaves change colors. I discovered that it’s because trees are living solar power plants (no pun intended). Without getting into the weeds of biology and chemistry, trees use the green pigment chlorophyll to create sugar out of sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. This green substance is used up by the process. With more daylight during the summer, trees get enough solar energy both to make their food and replenish the chlorophyll. As long as there’s enough sunlight, the leaves stay green.
When the days get shorter and temperatures cool, trees must preserve their sugar reserves and they completely use up the “green” in the leaves. At that point, other compounds that are yellow, orange or red become visible in the foliage. The brilliant colors of autumn light up the landscape! After reaching a vivid peak, these colorful chemicals break down, too. Just the dry, brown cell walls of the leaves remain.
Scientists have other ideas about why the color changes take place besides storing food for winter. One theory is that the transformation discourages pests from infesting or damaging trees, better helping them survive until spring. Another belief is that red pigments of some trees act as a sunscreen during colder weather to protect nutrients from breaking down while the trees reabsorb them.
Maybe we don’t need to know the technical reasons for the bright hues of autumn leaves to enjoy their breathtaking display. But we do need to remember that another word for “autumn” is “fall.” To quote an old folk song, “autumn leaves must fall.” Let’s be aware of a few hazards of the falling leaves.
Lots of us hit the road to view the splendor of fall color, but it’s important to know that fallen leaves are among the most slippery things on the pavement. Leaves are slick on both the top and bottom! As you drive along scenic byways, remember that a damp, leaf-covered road could easily triple the distance you need to stop compared to a clear, dry surface. Sidewalks, playgrounds and parking lots carpeted with dropped foliage increase the likelihood that pedestrians could slip and – ahem – fall. Raking the leaves doesn’t just keep the yard neater, it makes it safer as well.
Leaves are naturally water resistant, and this property can impact your property! When leaves cover drains and gutters, they quickly reduce the rate water can be carried away. Roof leaks, flooding and erosion around building foundations can cause costly water damage, as well as mold and rot. Clearing gutters and drains is nobody’s favorite chore, but it beats a major renovation or structural repair.
As the trees become bare, be sure to keep your pathways clear and your gutters flowing so your foliage viewing can be worry-free. Drivers, please don’t get distracted by the scenery and leave plenty of room between you and the car ahead. Take some time in the coming weeks to appreciate the autumn leaves in all their glory. They are a natural wonder not to be missed!
About Tim Crawford
Tim Crawford worked at Keenan for more than 20 years and now consults for the company on communication, media relations and health care reform projects. He is a freelance writer in Santa Fe, NM and is eagerly anticipating his aspens turning to gold.