Leaf peek: Where’s the peak? | AspenTimes.com

Leaf peek: Where’s the peak?

Janet Urquhart

An aspen at the Maroon Bells sports brown leaves instead of the usual gold. Blame the moisture and the cold, experts say. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Aspen’s usual autumnal brilliance appears a bit less so this year. Blame the weather.Plenty of late-summer rain, combined with last weekend’s freezing temperatures and snow, conspired to sap some aspen groves of their usual vibrant gold hue, and the return of winterlike conditions this week probably won’t help. That’s not to say there aren’t pockets of beauty in the high country, but this year’s leaf-peeping season isn’t measuring up to the luster of a typical autumn, locals have been quick to observe.Blame it on Mother Nature – the same force that gets the credit for a spectacular leaf season, said Chris Forman, Aspen’s city forester.”When we get really moist times toward the end of the summer and early snows, that doesn’t bode well for great fall color,” he said. “What we have now is brown instead of the vibrant color.”

The conditions haven’t been conducive to a lingering display of leaves, either, Forman said. The leaves may fall more quickly than usual, especially if wind accompanies additional snow.Snow fell Wednesday night, but high temperatures and bright blue skies graced Aspen early this week, after last weekend’s temperature drop, winds and snow in the high country. While the aspen trees on Aspen Mountain varied from green to yellow at midweek, they seemed to lack their usual intensity. Meanwhile, the aspen trees that blanket Red Mountain on Aspen’s northern flank were a mix of subdued gold and brown.Likewise, a hiking correspondent reported brown leaves in the Conundrum Valley, and the leaves on some trees in the Maroon Creek Valley appear to be turning from green to brown.However, a reconnaissance mission Wednesday to the lower reaches of Independence Pass – prime leaf-peeping terrain east of town – provided glimpses of showy displays of foliage in various stages of green, yellow and red.A closer inspection of some aspen trees, though, revealed leaves tinged brown or black.

“They’re still nice to see. It’s just not as vibrant as some years,” Forman said. “It’s a bummer we got so much moisture and the snow.”The Maroon Bells, where photographers often line the banks of Maroon Lake to capture the golden aspen trees framing the snow-dusted peaks, isn’t quite up to snuff, according to reports from the field.”If the leaves freeze, there’s not going to be much color to them,” said Matt Sandate, information specialist with the Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District. “I think that’s what we’re seeing at the Maroon Bells right now.”Under normal circumstances, Aspen’s aspen trees would be hitting their peak right about now, and this weekend would be high time to head to the high country, but the forecast doesn’t hold much promise for gold digging.The National Weather Service was calling for cold temperatures and snow in the high country surrounding Aspen through Saturday.

Did you know?The season’s longer nights cause leaves to change from green to autumn’s hues. Not all of the details are understood, but three factors affect the color: leaf pigments, longer nights and weather.As the nights grow longer and the daylight shorter, biochemical processes in the leaf start the color-change process. Production of chlorophyll (a pigment that causes the leaf to be green and allows the plant to convert sunlight to food) slows down and eventually stops. As the chlorophyll is destroyed, other pigments are unmasked and show their colors. These pigments include carotenoids, which produce yellow, orange and brown colors in such things as carrots and daffodils, and anthocyanins, which give color to familiar foods like cranberries and plums.Color brilliance is related to weather conditions that occur before and during the time the leaves’ chlorophyll dwindles. Temperature and moisture are the main influences. (Source: U.S. Forest Service)Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is janet@aspentimes.com

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