Drought May Cause Drab Fall Foliage

Sep 19, 2016
Originally published on September 15, 2016 1:27 pm

The typically brilliant colors of fall may soon become the latest casualty of the severe drought affecting Rochester and other parts of Western and Central New York.

Plants cool when water evaporates from their leaves. When there is little or no rain, that process shuts down.

"And as a result the temperature of the tissues inside the leaves can reach lethal temperatures; and in that case, they simply die,” said Karl Niklas, professor of plant biology at Cornell University. “They don't have time to process the pigments and other things that are required to give a leaf a beautiful color."

Niklas expects the lack of fall color to be most evident in areas of the state hardest hit by the drought.  He says in other places, such as the upper Adirondacks where there has been more steady rainfall, the fall foliage should produce normal to good color.

"It's very difficult to predict, and I think it's going to be very, very patchy,” he said. “The patchiness is going to reflect how much rain every little local area received."

Niklas says some trees may not survive until spring arrives. Evergreens, for instance, can be drought-stressed in the winter months, too.   

"Because the water in the soil, if there is any, is frozen and those roots can't absorb the water. As a result of them being evergreen, they're being put through the drought stress for 12 months."

In addition to conifer pines, spruce and fir trees, Niklas says fast growing trees such as poplar are especially vulnerable to drought conditions.

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