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Experts says this fall should feature vibrant foliage in Connecticut

The unusually wet weather our region has had this summer might have put a damper on outdoor activities, but it’s creating a beautiful autumn side effect.

All that moisture, along with higher temperatures, is making for particularly good fall foliage.

“It could be a really spectacular foliage year,” said Maggie Jones, who is a Stonington tree warden and director emeritus of the Denison Pequotsepos Nature Center. “We’ve had ample moisture throughout the growing season, but not too much. So the leaf health and the overall tree health is very good this year."

"I’m seeing trees that haven’t looked this good in years," she added with a laugh. "Like, wow, I thought that oak was going to die and look at it!”

Forestry Director Christopher Martin of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection agreed and said that, because this year has been warm and wet, he thinks the trees are going to take their time changing; they want to keep growing and staying green. If trees aren’t healthy or their root systems are compromised, they will change color earlier, he said. In fact, the last couple of years, we had summer drought, which meant foliage started earlier.

Our state is lucky this time around. In other parts of the country, climate change has meant much drier conditions, with leaves turning brown instead of those vivid fall colors. In Denver, for instance, according to an Associated Press article, high temperatures have left dead, dry edges of leaves early in the season.

Jones noted that with climate change, the changing of the leaves has gotten pushed back a bit. She expects the second and third weeks of October will be prime time in southeastern Connecticut.

Some of the early trees here that change color are dogwoods, Virginia creeper and red maples in some of the wetland areas.

The influence of the Long Island Sound moderates overnight temperatures, which means the trees stay greener longer along the coastline. The mouth of the Connecticut River is usually the last section to get color, often in the second week of November, Martin said.

Best viewing spots 

Where to find great foliage views? Here are some suggestions.

Martin pointed to Hublien Tower on Talcott Mountain in Avon; Fieldstone Mountain in the Somers area, where you can see Springfield, the Worcester Hills and almost Hartford; and Mount Misery in Voluntown.

Jones, meanwhile, loves to ride up Route 201 and Route 49, which provides a range of habitats and some nice vistas, especially at the top of Route 49 near Pachaug.

Miles Sax, director of the Connecticut College Arboretum, recommended “of course, the Connecticut College Arboretum. But that is a true statement, not just because we work here and love that landscape. It’s because we have a lot of diversity in the landscape, so a lot of different trees species from across the Northeast. If you have more diversity, you’re going to have more opportunities to see larger expressions of different color.”

Outside of the arboretum, Sax said, “I like to find places where I can get good vantages, whether that’s taking a boat ride up the Thames River or going out to where you get some topography, like the Oswegatchie Hills or Lantern Hill. Or getting off into the Sound and looking back at the coast.”

Sights and smells 

As for more unusual trees, Brian Gibbons, the arboretum director of horticulture, points to the katsura trees on Conn College's campus. When they start to change, the leaves morph from green to a beautiful apricot yellow — and release a burnt-sugar vanilla scent.

“It’s just beautiful to smell,” he said.

He pointed out that it’s not just leaves that provide brilliant fall color. This time of year, a lot of berries do the same. Some, like the kousa dogwood, produce berries that ripen during the fall and so are in full color. Others, like the winterberry, simply become more visible because the leaves have fallen off.

The whys of it

The strong sun in the summer causes leaves to make more chlorophyll; that chemical helps plants make energy and keeps the leaves green.

With autumn come fewer hours of sunlight and lower temperatures. Those conditions prompt the leaves to ease off on making chlorophyll — which means the green fades — and the trees to get ready for winter.

Sax explained, "For deciduous trees, the green pigment in the leaves, chlorophyll, is breaking down and reabsorbed into the plant to store as nutrients for the winter. When this chlorophyll disappears, the underlying pigment in the leaves is revealed as yellow; it is an unmasking effect. For trees that turn maroon/red when the chlorophyll breaks down, a red pigment is produced in its place."

Diversity of trees is key 

Connecticut in totality has the most diverse forest in the country, Martin said. Any given acre of woodland in Connecticut can have 15 different tree species.

Other parts of the country don’t have the sheer range we do; out West, for instance, there might be two or three dominant tree species.

“We really have something special in New England and in Connecticut,” Martin said.

He added, “In my mind, the beauty of Connecticut is the diversity of the trees that we have, and that’s just all kinds of color associated with the trees, depending on the species. ... We’re in a transitional area for hardwood tree species; northern hardwoods and your mid-Atlantic hardwoods kind of converge on top of us.”

And because of the variety of terrain, Connecticut has about a month of peak color.

“We tend to take trees for granted,” Martin said. “They are around us all the time. Sometimes they’re a nuisance more than a help because we lose power. But I do think it’s a good time of year to — I don’t want to sound philosophical — but just reflect about the beauty of our state.”

He added with a laugh, “Get outside and enjoy (the foliage) because it will be winter soon enough.”

Seeing foliage at 60 mph

Foliage is a big tourist draw, and a lot of places recognize that. Foxwoods, for instance, is publicizing how people can see the fall colors from various points at its in-the-midst-of-the-woods site.

Monique Sebastian, vice president of entertainment and entertainment marketing, points out a trio of ways that visitors can enjoy foliage at Foxwoods: from its zipline, which starts 350 feet above the ground and goes at a speed of nearly 60 mph; from upper-floor rooms in its hotels; and from hiking trails.

When people use the HighFlyer Zipline, she notes, “you can see the amazing foliage as you zipline down off the top of Fox Tower, behind the Grand Pequot Tower, over all the forest, over the Mashantucket Pequot Museum — and that’s actually where you’re going to land. From up there, you can see all of the leaves, the top of the trees within, I would say, at least a 3-mile radius. ... You get an amazing 360-degree view of all of the trees and the foliage that surround Foxwoods and Mashantucket.” 

k.dorsey@theday.com

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