Possumhaw: Why leaves change colors

October 22, 2012 10:02:14 AM

Shannon Bardwell - [email protected]


Outside the window it was raining leaves. From the kitchen window the leaves of the black cherry tree looked red, but up close they were the colors of leaping flames, red, yellow and orange. I gathered leaves and returned to the kitchen.  


Following Internet instructions, I lined up glasses that looked like shot glasses and filled them with isopropyl alcohol. Beside each glass were the leaves collected from Prairie trees -- the black cherry, a brown oak leaf, a yellowed magnolia and an unidentified yellow leaf. I crumbled the leaves into each glass and sat the glasses in water warmed by a crockpot.  


The instructions said to let the leaves soak for an hour. While soaking, I cut up a white coffee filter into strips. After an hour I slipped the strips into the mixture of alcohol and crumbled leaves and left them. 


Sam and I spent evenings on the porch looking at the trees and wondering how and why they changed colors. Thus the kitchen counter experiment. 


From spring through summer the leaves of the black cherry tree were green and lush, utilizing the sun and rain. Now, as the days grow shorter, the season signals the tree to slow down. It's as if the trees are settling in for a long winter's nap. 


It's the chlorophyll, we found out. Chlorophyll is green. As food production winds down the green slowly recedes, making the other colors more apparent. The "fall" colors were there all along. Temperature and moisture factor in making some falls more beautiful than others.  


The reds, yellows, purples and golds come from different kinds of nourishment; the browns are the waste products, tannin, and all of this together becomes the fall colors.  


Early each morning my walking buddy and I discuss the changes in the trees. We also notice the millions of spider webs nesting in the grass. The early morning dew makes the webs more evident. Shirley calls the ground webs "flowers." 


Shirley also pointed out the leaves change first along the river. She watches the trees change as she crosses the Tenn-Tom River bridge heading westward toward home. The colors are most brilliant at sunset, she says.  


It's true with the colors along Tibbee Creek. The trees along the water do change sooner than the Prairie trees.  


Sam brought home some buckeyes from a fall fishing trip; when buckeyes abound that's a sure sign of fall. I piled the new buckeyes in the copper bowl with old buckeyes and noticed how much bigger the new ones are. I had forgotten the old ones shrunk. Another reminder of how everything changes. 


I continued to collect more leaves and crumble them in the alcohol. The results of the experiment were that different colors ran up the filter paper, not as vivid as I had hoped, but now we know why and how the leaves change colors out here in the Prairie

Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.