It’s a simple, natural change that takes place in many places around the world every year. And yet it’s also one of nature’s greatest masterpieces. It’s the changing leaves of the fall. It’s not uncommon to hop on a plane and cross oceans to visit ancient monuments, great masterpieces, and famous landmarks. But some people are so captivated by the sights of fall, that their favorite kind of sightseeing is the chance to revel in the autumn splendor of reds, golds, and oranges. The word for these lovers of fall is “leaf-peepers.” The name of the pastime is “leaf-peeping.” And nestled in the Shenandoah Valley, Front Royal, Virginia is a leaf-peeper destination par-excellence.
Just one fall visit to the Shenandoah Valley will be enough to explain why the area is such a sought-after fall destination. The tree covered slopes of the Blue Ridge and Allegheny Mountains are like a canvas under the hands of a master craftsman; each year they come alive with a new, yet familiar, work of art. From Skyline Drive, atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, you can see mile after mile of trees ablaze with color for miles and miles. October remains Skyline Drive’s most visited month of the year, proof of the enduring popularity of these fall foliage vistas. Situated at the northern entrance of Skyline Drive, Front Royal makes a great home base.
Reds, Oranges, and Yellows – Where Do They Come From?
A good way to understand the process of the fall leaf change is to think about it from the perspective of the tree. As a tree, your job (like pretty much any other living organism) is to grow larger, sustain yourself, and reproduce. To perform these important jobs, you need energy. While animals get their energy from eating food, trees make their own “food” from sunlight, air, and water.
But trees can’t get their energy from just “raw sunlight.” That’s where the leaves come in. They’re the food factories of the tree. It’s their job to transform sunlight into usable energy. However, keeping the leaves alive also uses up some of the tree’s energy. In the winter, there’s not enough sunlight for the tree to keep growing and supporting the leaves. So each year, trees go into a kind of hibernation. They stop growing. They stop reproducing. They rely on food stores. And their leaves die and fall off.
So why the crazy colors? In order to transform sunlight into tree food, leaves use a chemical called chlorophyll. It’s the chlorophyll that gives leaves their green color. As the days grow cooler and shorter, chlorophyll decreases. And as chlorophyll disappears, the other pigments in the leaves to shine through: oranges and yellows. If it wasn’t for chlorophyll, we’d see those oranges and yellows all the time.
Meanwhile, the combination of bright sunlight and cool air triggers the production of another chemical called anthocyanin in many trees. Scientists still aren’t exactly sure what the purpose of anthocyanin is. One theory is that it helps the trees to extract all the possible nutrients from the leaves before they die and fall off. However, we do know that anthocyanin is responsible for the shades of red that combine so beautifully with the oranges and yellows of fall.
Fall in Front Royal and the Shenandoah Leaf-O-Meter
So, this year, when you’re out leaf-peeping and enjoying those stunning fall scenes, you’ll have a better an idea of exactly what’s going on in nature. Stay tuned for the next post in our fall series. We’ll be introducing an exciting tracking tool to help you follow the change of seasons and plan your trip to the Front Royal area and the Shenandoah Valley.
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