It's been a 'disappointing' fall foliage season in the Mid-Atlantic: 'We've never seen anything like this'

Normally by this time of year, Western Maryland would be aflame with the orange, red and yellow of autumn foliage. This year, though, color has appeared only briefly, and in small pockets.

In Garrett County this month, the Autumn Glory festival that traditionally heralds the arrival of peak foliage season was instead marked by an abundance of green leaves.

And in Thurmont, farmer Robert Black is counting on good leaf-peeping to help draw visitors to his orchards for apple varieties like the Evercrisp, a popular cross between Fujis and Honeycrisps. But while a merciful end to stretches of rainy weather finally helped bring apple-pickers out, there’s little sign of autumn to be found.

“We’re just not seeing any color,” Black said. “The more you look at it, the more I see just green leaves falling off.”

“Bizarre” conditions, as a group called the Foliage Network described them, are the product of the region’s excessive rain and unseasonably warm temperatures stretching into October — both of which serve to delay and stunt the change in colors.

All the moisture the Mid-Atlantic has experienced is also afflicting many trees with fungus, preventing leaves from staying on branches long enough for their bright colors to be revealed.

“It’s not our typical fall,” said Melissa Nash, Garrett County forester, in a Maryland Department of Natural Resources foliage update.

The department reported “muted” yellows in hickory and poplar trees, and isolated maple trees with some color. But there is little color from oaks at a time of year when fall foliage is usually hitting its peak.

“I am not sure we will have a big swath of color on the ridges in unison this fall,” said Aaron Cook, a state forester in Clear Spring.

Wet and warm weather isn’t inherently bad for the trees’ health — it actually increases their ability to hold onto leaves and prevents them from pulling chlorophyll into their root systems, said Anne Hairston-Strang, associate director for the Maryland Forest Service. Chlorophyll, the chemical that lets plants turn sunlight into energy, gives the leaves their green color.

The problem is more visual. The weather conditions haven’t prompted the trees to go through that process of storing chlorophyll away for the next growing season. And it’s only when the chlorophyll is flushed from the leaves that the brilliant colors of other chemicals stored within them can be revealed, she said.

The best foliage develops when there is a moderate amount of precipitation, cool days and crisp nights. As cold weather finally arrives, weeks later than normal, the trees have little time to adjust.

“We’ve sort of gone from hot to cold and we didn’t get a lot of those pleasant days and chilly nights,” Hairston-Strang said. “That doesn’t leave us much time to see” the leaves.

It has made for an unusual season around Deep Creek Lake, where the Autumn Glory fest was held Oct. 10-14. Leaves were still mostly green.

Nicole Christian, CEO of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, said more widespread color is starting to arrive since Western Maryland got its first freeze last week. Autumn color is important to the tourist trade, and the chamber is encouraging visitors to take self-guided driving tours to see different foliage panoramas, making the most of any new pockets of foliage as they arrive.

“We cannot control nature, and I think anybody who is coming here to view the foliage understands that as well,” Christian said.

“It may not be the most spectacular foliage we’ve had in the past several years,” she added, “but it’s still a good time to visit.”

Marek Rzonca, organizer of The Foliage Network, called this season “bizarre.” The website tracks leaf change across much of the country.

“In the 10 years we have covered this region, we've never seen anything like this,” Rzonca wrote in an update last week.

He cited the weather, but also a surge of fungus that the moisture has allowed to grow on trees. Known as anthracnose, it causes diseases that produce dark lesions on leaves and other parts of plants. It is particularly affecting varieties of maples across the region, causing their leaves to turn brown and drop off, Rzonca said.

“Unfortunately, maple trees are quite widespread and are responsible for the bright orange and red colors typically associated with fall foliage,” he said.

In Central Maryland, there is still a chance of decent foliage, Hairston-Strang said — typically the season doesn’t peak until late October or early November here.

“There’s still the potential,” she said. “There’s still a lot of beauty out there even if it’s not what we experience in the best years.”

And even if foliage is not ideal, Hairston-Strang urged leaf-peepers to explore nature — and to not just look upward. The rain may be bad for foliage, but it’s great for fungi, not all of which cause tree disease.

“There are some bizarre mushrooms out there,” she said. “There’s a whole ’nother life underground for a lot of things.”

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