| The Columbus Dispatch
Leaf peepers should find a traditional color season this fall.
In a year in which so much has been canceled or postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio Department of Natural Resources Forester Jamie Regula said one thing is still certain: Fall is here, and the leaves are changing with it.
Regula works most of the year as a state services forester, helping landowners manage their woodlands. But as autumn approached this year, Regula was bestowed the seasonal title of “Fall Color Forester.”
But what exactly does a Fall Color Forester do? And how do they predict how the leaves will change?
They look at lots and lots of data.
Any fall foliage predictions for a specific area begin with analyzing thousands of different data points on past weather conditions, average light exposure, latitude and altitude, and tree species.
Regula and her ODNR colleagues send out a weekly survey to more than 30 wildlife professionals across the state to find out what they are seeing on the ground and what tree species are changing.
Those observations are compared with a model developed by the group at SmokyMountains.com, which promotes tourism in the Great Smoky Mountains region and produces a national fall foliage map each year, to predict when the leaves will change in the Buckeye State.
Regula said that predicting fall colors isn’t an exact science.
The transition from bright greens to autumnal hues is all part a biochemical process that happens as the days start to get shorter, Regula said. Chlorophyll, the key component that allows plants to absorb energy from light, is the pigment that we see as green. But Chlorophyll is not the only colorful compound stored in leaves.
Other compounds known as Carotenoids and Anthocyanins also are present in trees and leaves. Those compounds give off red, orange and yellow hues. As the days get shorter and colder, Regula said, the production of Chlorophyll breaks down in the leaves, eventually revealing the leaves’ “true” colors.
Eventually, as the days get colder, trees drop their leaves to protect themselves against winter’s harsh temperatures and snow.
Even without 100% certainty in their predictions, foresters and researchers can make pretty good guesses based on their data because color intensity is mostly determined by the weather, Regula said.
For the most vibrant fall colors, Regula said trees need three main things: warm sunny days; cool — but not cold — nights; and a good amount of rain, but not too much because a storm’s winds could blow leaves off trees.
Regula said Ohioans can expect a traditionally colorful season this fall.
“We had an average amount of precipitation this summer, and it cooled down faster this year than previous years,” Regula said.
Colors already have started to change throughout Ohio, with most of the changes concentrated in the northern parts of the state. Those vibrant colors will continue to move south as the weeks go on, progressing throughout October and winding down the first week of November, Regula said.
The best week to view Ohio’s peak fall colors will be October 19-26.
Regula said Ohioans are really lucky in the fall because the state is home to more than 125 different tree species.
“Fall is an exceptionally beautiful time in Ohio,” she said.
Each tree’s own genetics will produce different colors, making for a magnificent fall landscape. For yellows, look for cottonwoods, tulip poplars, aspens or beech trees. Bright reds and crimson leaves are best seen in sumacs, white oaks, black gums and dogwood. (Poison ivy also turns red in the fall, so be vigilant on the trails.) And for a mix of fall colors, sassafras, sugar maple and sweet gum trees (Regula’s personal favorite) provide that natural variety.
When she’s not poring over data, Regula also films weekly informational videos that provide an update on where the leaves are changing each week. She also takes as many opportunities as she can to go out and hike with landowners.
She also spends time exploring the outdoors with her dog to find the best places for leaf peeping.
“There are unlimited places to see fall in its fullest,” Regula said.
Since the fall foliage transition starts in the north and makes its way south, Regula said someone could potentially plan multiple weekend trips to explore the state from top to bottom.
Regula recommends Maumee State Forest in northwestern Ohio, and Beaver Creek State Park and Cuyahoga National Park in the northeastern part of the state.
Central Ohioans have access to multiple locations, Regula said. Hocking Hills is a fan favorite, and Alum Creek has plenty of walking and biking trails for visitors, she said. Urban environments also potentially offer non-native tree species that you won’t find in the rest of the state.
For an adventure at the end of the season, Regula said Shawnee State Park and Zaleski State Forest are perfect for late fall colors.
You can see Regula’s updates and read fall color updates at fallcolor.ohiodnr.gov
Tourism Ohio developed “the Scenic Route,” a statewide road trip with 16 different stops that Dayna Brownfield, an agency spokeswoman, said is a great way to see fall foliage all over Ohio. She also recommends checking out the official Ohio. Find It Here. list of “100 Things to Do in Ohio This Fall” to find more outdoor activities.
Wherever you decide to take in Ohio’s fall colors, Regula said this season can be a reminder of the constants we have in a year of uncertainty.
“I think a lot of us have had a really challenging year, a lot of things we were looking forward to got cancelled,” she said. “Immersing yourself in nature is really good for your health, and I think this is a really important time to enjoy these changes.”