Delayed foliage about to peak in NC mountains, experts say

Leaves at the highest elevations have already begun to change in North Carolina, as seen in this photograph of Sam Knob, elevation 6,045 feet, at left. (Ted Strong)

BLACK BALSAM KNOB, N.C. (WNCN) — Leaf color in the state’s western mountains has been delayed this year, meaning peak foliage is likely just around the corner, experts say.

Weather conditions that delayed the leaves’ peak also protected them from Hurricane Matthew’s winds.

“We’re seeing a delay of about a week so far,” said Howard S. Neufeld, a Appalachian State University scientist who tracks the fall’s color. “It’s been unusually warm all summer.”

Recent cool temperatures will help to “spur the color along,” Neufeld said. The mountains would have already peaked in a normal year, he said.

Many green leaves remain in the mountains, though fall colors are also starting to show. (Alexandria M. Lane)
Many green leaves remain in the mountains, though fall colors are also starting to show. (Alexandria M. Lane)

Neufeld said he thinks the coming weekend and the next should be peak time to view fall color. That should be the best time for most of the Blue Ridge Parkway in our state, with views focusing on areas 3,000 to 4,000 feet above sea level, he said.

Blue Ridge Parkway spokeswoman Caitlin Worth said the peak in the highest elevations could be this week or the beginning of next week, but that she expects the foliage peak to last a long time, “depending on what the weather does and whether we have any major wind events.”

The peak in some places could even last until November, she speculated.

Neufeld added that people shouldn’t be worried about arriving late for peak foliage — leaf color drops roughly 1,000 feet in elevation every ten days, and the parkway’s overlooks give people lots of opportunities to look down thousands of feet at trees spreading out below.


Hurricane Matthew, which brought windy conditions even to the western reaches of the state, had relatively little effect on foliage, experts said. Because the leaves were delayed, they were mostly still green when the winds hit.

In fact, the rain the storm brought might even help the leaves hang on a little longer after they do turn, Worth said.

The hurricane-spawned winds did strip a few yellow leaves from early-turning maples, birches and tulip poplars, Neufeld said.

But what has made a difference, Neufeld said, was the warm, dry conditions the region experienced in late August and September. Those conditions might mute some of the reds very slightly, and some of the yellow leaves might fall more quickly after they turn, he said.

Worth countered that assessment, saying they yellows have been beautiful this year.

“People are seeing the yellows when there’s still a lot of green on the other trees and it just serves as a lovely contrast,” she said.

The potential remains for a wonderful fall color season, Neufeld said.

“If we don’t have another hurricane and it stays cool then the color should develop quite nicely,” he said.

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