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Shorter days, cooler nights make for beautiful Ozarks fall color

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Picture of fall foliage along Arkansas 7.

Picture of fall foliage along Scenic Byway, Arkansas 7 Highway was named by Forbes Magazine as one of the most colorful section for fall foliage in the nation. The route begins in the south end of the state near El Dorado, continues to Camden and Arkadelphia through rolling terrain with dense pine forests and stream valleys with bottomland hardwood forests to Harrison.

As the heat of summer fades into the cool weather of fall, trees and shrubs around both the Show-Me State and the Natural State transform from leaves of green to a fall-foliage color palette of golds, reds, oranges, and purples. Tourism and conservation officials in both state encourage people to take advantage of the fall-color excursions.

“People can travel anywhere in Missouri and find a variety of trees that show off a fantastic array of color in the fall,” said MDC Resource Forester Cory Gregg.

Gregg explained that leaves turn colors when two things happen.

“First, sugars produced by photosynthesis are trapped inside leaves by chilly  but not freezing – autumn nights,” he said. “Those sugars are the building blocks for red, yellow, orange, and purple pigments. Cool nights simultaneously cause the breakdown of green pigments, allowing these other colors to show through.”

The variety of trees means Ozarkers in Missouri and Arkansas enjoy a fall color season that can last four to six weeks. Sassafras, sumac, and the ubiquitous Virginia creeper are some of the earliest foliage to change, beginning in mid-September. By late in the month, black gum, bittersweet, and dogwoods are turning.

The color change starts earliest in northern Missouri and moves southward across the Ozarks. The peak of fall color is usually in mid-October. This is when maples, ashes, oaks, and hickories are at the height of their fall display. Normally by late October, the colors are fading and the leaves start to drop from the trees.

“As of mid-September, it’s still early in the season and we haven’t seen much of a change,” said MDC Community Forester Mark Grueber. “As we move into fall, we’ll hope for warm sunny days and cool nights to provide us with the best color display.”

Viewing Fall Color

Autumn color on Missouri River bluffs near Hartsburg in Boone County

Autumn color on Missouri River bluffs near Hartsburg in Boone County.

For spectacular vistas, Grueber recommends routes along rivers with views of forested bluffs, and along ridges with sweeping scenes of forested landscapes. On a smaller scale, drive on back roads, hike, or take a float trip under a colorful forest canopy on a clear, blue-sky day. Conservation areas and state parks are great places to visit for fall color.

“Even treeless areas, such as prairies and roadsides, display beautiful shades of gold, purple, olive, and auburn with autumn wildflowers, shrubs, and grasses,” Grueber said. “In cities and towns, enjoy places with mature trees, such as older neighborhoods, parks, and even cemeteries.”

Weekly Fall Color Updates

MDC offers weekly fall color updates provided by foresters from all over the state through November. The updates include what species of trees are turning and recommendations for where to see them. The easiest way to get those updates is with MDC’s free mobile app, MO Fall Colors. It provides fall-color scenes from around the state, complete with GPS navigation information. Users can even add their own fall-color photos and share them with Facebook friends and others. The app is active during fall-color changes beginning now through November. Download MO Fall Colors for Android and Apple devices at MDC.MO.GOV.

Fall color updates are also available on the MDC website at mdc.mo.gov/node/4548.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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