In Travel & Visitors Guide

Fall colors arriving early

Labor Day traditionally marks the end of summer in Wisconsin, but this year it also might be the start of the fall color season!

Observers from all over the state have been reporting early fall colors. This writer recently observed them during a five-day trip from Westby to Milwaukee to Door County and back across the state to Westby.

We're not talking way up north, where the autumn colors often do start in late August. We're also not seeing only the occasional "stressed" tree. This includes entire hillsides of yellow tinged trees and a more than usual amount of trees that have significantly turned colors. In more than 50 years of living in Wisconsin, including 35 as a journalist, this observer has never seen as much color before Labor Day.

"The cool temperatures have had something to do with it," said UW assistant professor in horticulture and state extension specialist Laura Jull, who added she too has heard reports from around the state.

"Temperatures play only some role. The photo-period and shortening of days are big factors. But, it is being exacerbated by the cool temperatures."

Sugar maples often turn early, when they are stressed by being planted too deep, especially in urban areas, or other factors, Jull said. But, the early colors this year are not restricted to those maples.

Of course, many communities around the state have autumn color festivals, usually in late September or early October. In fact, the fall colors have become big business.

Could the various festivals end up too late this fall?

"Fall is now our No. 2 busiest tourism season, surpassing winter," Jerry Huffman of the State Department of Tourism said. "An early start would be something we would welcome, as long as it doesn't get cut off early at the end."

That is a danger, primarily if a hard frost hits early, according to Jull. "The trees' leaves are not acclimated to the cold night temperatures," she said. "Temperatures in the 28-30 degree range won't hurt because the sugars in the plant will prevent freezing. But, when it gets down to 25 or below, there is a danger. The leaves will wilt and turn brown."

Some parts of the state already have experienced light frost during a few nights. In Door County, there hasn't been frost, but a combination of a wet spring and recent drought conditions has led to the early color and leaves dropping prematurely, according to Dick Weidman of the UW Extension Peninsula Research Center.

"The wet weather caused some fungal leaf parts, and there also has been a fungal leaf problem on the sugar maples that is causing them to turn brown and fall off. For the last 30-45 days Door County and some other parts of the state have not had a significant rainfall," Weidman said. "So some trees are stressed. Plus, it has been pretty cool."

All this does not mean you should cancel your plans to visit Door County or another favorite fall color spot in late September or October. "We could still have a fall color season if we get some rain," Weidman said.

Jull emphasized that every year trees face climate challenges. Last year, they were affected by drought conditions in some areas of the state. But, Jull added, "Trees are very adaptable."

Colors also can vary considerably by regions in the state. As that fall color trip comes closer, you might want to call ahead to make sure the leaves are indeed still colorful.

Meanwhile, this year's phenomenon could make the Labor Day weekend an early fall color experience in some parts of the state.

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