joe reynoldsIf you spend most of your time right along the beach, perhaps fishing, surfing, or seeking a flawless seashell, you will be forgiven for not knowing fall foliage is peaking right now around New York Harbor.

Okay, sure. Our coastline doesn’t usually have the typical variety of vibrant maples and other trees that provide colorful hues in northern forests like the Catskills or the Green Mountains of Vermont. Much of our dune and beach landscape around New York Harbor lies with the subtle shades of marsh grasses, sumacs, sassafras, Virginia creeper, phragmites, and even poison ivy, which turns a lovely wine red come fall.

But that doesn’t mean you have to travel far to see classic fall color. Just a few miles inland to nearby parks and preserves is where autumnal beauty lies from a variety of trees. Some of my favorite places include Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Blue Heron Park in Staten Island; and Cheesequake State Park in Middlesex County and Freneau Woods Park in Aberdeen Township, the last two located in New Jersey. Everyone has a favorite place they can easily add to a list. Go there now to see autumn leaf color before it fades away.

foliage 2Fall foliage usually peaks around much of New York Harbor in the last week of October or the first week of November. Mother Nature, however, can be unpredictable. This year it seems the best fall color is about a week behind, probably due to an unseasonably warm October and a late summer drought, which can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks.

Trees are taking their time making the shift from green to vibrant yellow, orange, gold, and red. No worries though. This means you still have time to get out and enjoy the lively colors of fall from beeches, maples, oaks and other attention-grabbing plants.

Yet, don’t take too long. Fall occurs only once a year, and when it’s gone, it’s gone for a whole year. Plants are getting ready for winter regardless if you revel in their beauty or not.

Changes in the length of daylight tell many plants to stop their food-making process as the seasons change from fall to winter. During the spring and summer the leaves have served as important workshops, making most of the food (in the form of a sugary substance known as glucose) necessary for the tree's growth. This food-making process takes place in the leaf in numerous cells containing chlorophyll, which gives the leaf its green color. This extraordinary chemical absorbs sunlight, which provides the energy to transform carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates or food. It’s an amazing chemical process called photosynthesis, which loosely means growth with light.

Where does a leaf get its autumn color? Several pigments in leaves are responsible for color including carotene or carotenoids and anthocyanins.

foliage 1Carotenoids create bright yellows and oranges in leaves and familiar fruits and vegetables. Corn, carrots, and bananas are just a few of the many plants colored by carotenoid. The yellow, gold and orange colors in leaves created by carotenoid remain fairly constant from year to year. That's because carotenoids are always present in leaves. In autumn foliage, the carotenoids are revealed from the loss of chlorophyll.

Anthocyanins add the color red to plants, including cranberries, red apples, cherries, strawberries and others. Anthocyanins give leaves their bright, brilliant shades of red, purple and crimson. Bright light favors red colors, so red color often develops on uncovered or open leaves or trees. Water supply also affects anthocyanin production, with a mild drought favoring bright reds.

As green chlorophyll breaks down, the green color disappears, and the yellow to orange colors become visible and give leaves fall splendor. As green fades away and fall colors appear, the connections between stem cells and tree cells become weakened, and the leaves break off with time, especially during a wind storm.

Once a leaf falls to the ground, nothing goes to waste. Leaves are broken down by bacteria, fungi, earthworms and other organisms. The decomposed leaves restock the soil with nutrients, and become part of the spongy humus layer on the forest floor that absorbs and holds rainfall. This helps create ideal conditions for more plants and trees to grow in the future; and autumn colors to reappear every year.

To view more pictures, video, or stories of wildlife around Sandy Hook Bay, Raritan Bay, and Lower New York Bay, please visit my nature blog, NY Harbor Nature at http://www.nyharbornature.com