By Joy VanDrie

Fall color – What trees offer what color & Why?

The most common leaf colors of fall are red, yellow and orange and some trees can have several of these colors simultaneously as the season unfolds. Why do they turn color though? It’s an interesting concept that different tree types would change different colors as the weather changes right?   And why are they more vibrant in our area?

According to the US National Aboretum (click here to learn more) the color and it’s intensity has little to do with cool or warm weather… it has everything to do with the replacement of chlorophyll.   So when the days are shorter and the nights are longer the plants can’t replace the lost chlorophyll as rapidly, and the pigments stored in the tree and leaf for growth and winter begin to take over inside the leaf.

So why are the colors more vivid in the Cadillac Area than those down state? Our nights are actually darker, especially in the National Forest just West of Cadillac due to low population and development density.   With dark skies, the chlorophyll has even less chance of replenishing itself.

Now, the weather does impact the Color Tour Season, but in a different way than people think.   When we are granted a warm fall with little precipitation, the leaves will stay on the trees longer.   But when the autumn storms and winds shift, often it can make the color tour season shorter by the wind and heavy rains actually pulling them off.

Typically in the Greater Cadillac area we start to see a few spots of color late September, with peaks falling week 2 or 3 of October, and depending on weather can span to the end of October and into November. So, watch the weather forecast for storms more than and our Facebook, blog, and website for weekly, if not daily updates.

Green to Red or Orange or Yellow – why?

All leaves start out the summer green. This is because of the presence of a group of green pigments known as chlorophyll (from science class remember?). When these green pigments are abundant in the leaf’s cells during the growing season, they mask out the color of any other pigments that may be present in the leaf.

But when autumn comes the weather and daylight changes, and it destructs the chlorophyll replacement process. This takeover of green pigments allows other masked colors to be exposed.

Photo: Katheryn Kidder taken in the Tustin Area, along Fall Color Route 3.

Trees with Red Leaf Color

Red is produced by leftover ‘food’ in the leaf. The food is transformed into red or anthocyanin pigments. These red pigments also color cranberries, red apples, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and plums.   Popular Trees in the Greater Cadillac area that turn red:   Maples, some Oaks (red, pin, scarlet & Black), dogwood

Photo: Fall Color peaking along the Big Manistee River

Trees with Yellow and Orange Leaf Color

As the chlorophyll is destroyed it unmasks the orange and yellow leaf colors, or carotenoid pigments. Deep orange is a combining of the red and yellow color making process. These yellow and orange pigments also color carrots, corn, canaries, and daffodils, as well as egg yolks, rutabagas, buttercups, and bananas. Popular trees in the greater Cadillac Area that turn yellow and/or Orange: Hickory, Ash, some maple, some oak, yellow-poplar, birch.

Supporting Fall Color Materials Courtesy of:,

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