Reds, oranges and yellows -- expect fall's peak in about a week
Even if you have only a vague idea of what chlorophyll does for trees, you still know Christy Rollinson has an enviable job when it's a Friday, the sun is shining and her workplace holds the musky-sweet smell of autumn.
Around noon, Rollinson was wandering into woods bursting with the colors of a sunset.
"We've got a lot of yellows and oranges," said Rollinson, a forest ecologist at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle. "We're not quite peak yet, but we're not far off."
Rollinson took a break in her expedition into the arboretum's East Woods to answer one of the most crucial questions this time of year: When will fall colors reach their peak?
"The vibrancy is really going to depend on what happens over the next few days," Rollinson said. "If we keep getting sort of the wonderful, sunny weather with cooler nights that we've been getting lately, that is going to be a recipe for great fall color."
Some tree species began developing color earlier than usual due to the stress of a summer drought. But, generally, Rollinson predicts the vibrant hues, especially of maples, should pop across the region in about a week or so, with ideal weather conditions.
It's an all-too-brief window when Mother Nature unfurls a beautiful tapestry. And in the midst of a pandemic and a contentious presidential election, the fall color show is a rare bright spot, an opportunity to actually make plans.
The arboretum's 1,700 acres are open daily to visitors who must reserve tickets with a specific date and time for admission.
"We have an incredible diversity, so if you come out anytime in October through the beginning of November, you're going to be able to find some area at its peak," Rollinson said.
For leaf peeping now, Rollinson points to a "pretty breathtaking" drive up to the Thornhill Education Center on the arboretum's west side. Maples near the Big Rock Visitor Station also are showing a shade of yellow-orange.
"I think in the next couple of days, it's going to turn bright orange to bright red," she said. "Those are what are standing out to me the most, along with the sumac that lines a lot of the parking lots and some of the road edges, where it's this bright, bright red color."
The arboretum tracks colors in a weekly report. An army of volunteers also is monitoring more than 150 different species of oak, maple and elm as part of a broader effort to understand how climate change affects the timing of fall foliage.
Leaves change color when trees stop producing chlorophyll, the pigment that gives the green color. The process unmasks the yellow and orange pigments. In some species, the data shows the fall display does seem to be extending and happening later, Rollinson said.
"But for other species because of the stress, fall appears to be happening perhaps the same time or earlier," she said. "And so we're trying to figure out what it all means, how the different species and how the timing of different species is affected differently by climate change, and then how that's going to have long-term impacts in our forest."