Why the Leaves Change Colour

Reinhardstein Castle in Belgium - Jan Willem Plug - the Instatripper

Every year about this time – and for a way too short period – an amazing thing happens to the trees where I live. All of them explode in a thousand different shades of yellow, red, gold, orange and scarlet. Why do the leaves change colour?

I never really notice when the the colour change takes place. One day, all the trees are a beautiful and relaxing Summer green. The next day they’ve suddenly completely changed their appearance. Does it happen overnight? I have no idea. But at some point during the transition I step out my house one morning and it suddenly hits me: all the leaves have changed colour! Autumn is here.

Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht
Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht

What I Like About Autumn

I’m not a big fan of Autumn on account of the weather. Mornings get chilly, clouds cover most of the sky during the day and the sun keeps playing hide and seek for months. It starts raining relentlessly day and night and it gets stormy and windy all the time. (I might be exaggerating here a bit, but you know what I mean). The one thing I do love about Autumn are the wonderful changes in the colours of the leaves. Well, that and Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Jan Willem Plug -  the Instatripper
On a morning walk in Autumn
Deer in the woods
A Walk in the Woods not far from my house

Why The Colour Change Happens

It is easy enough to take the Autumn colours for granted. After all, when you grow up in a moderate climate you don’t know any different. Seasons just change and colours of Autumn just happen to be. What’s interesting about this spectacular colour change is that no one actually knows why it happens.

What Happens Inside the Leaves

As you may remember from your school biology lessons, in autumn trees prepare for their long winter’s sleep and stop making chlorophyll, the chemical that makes their leaves green. The lack of chlorophyll allows other pigments, called carotenoids, which have been present in the leaves all along, to show off a bit. The carotenoids cause the yellow and gold of birches, hickories, beeches and oaks. Now here is where it gets interesting. To allow these golden colours to thrive the trees must continue to feed the leaves. But the leaves aren’t actually doing anything useful besides just hanging there looking pretty. Think about that. Just at a time when a tree should to be storing up all its energy for the upcoming winter it is instead expending a great deal of effort and energy into making the leaves look beautiful for a few extra weeks in Autumn.

Along the river Maas in Maastricht
Autumn walk along the river in Maastricht

The Change is Even Mysterious

What is even more mysterious is that some species of trees go a step further. At a considerable cost to themselves, they manufacture another type of chemical called anthocyanins. This causes the spectacular orange and scarlet I see on the trees in my street. No one knows why the trees make this immense effort when they get nothing evident in return. Isn’t that amazing?

Let’s Just Enjoy It

So why do the leaves change colour? We still don’t know, really. But don’t you just love the way it looks? I love that aspect of the season. It makes for great autumn forest walks with so many different colours everywhere! It gets many of us in the mood to decorate the house and garden, too. It’s one way to enjoy and liven up this time of the year. Plus, it makes me enjoy my Pumpkin Spice Latte even more. Now that autumn is here, the rainy days are back too though. Sitting at home because it’s raining outside does not have to be boring though. Click here to find 10 great things to do at home while it’s raining.

Behind my house at the end of Autumn
Behind my house at the end of Autumn
Autumn walks can be refreshing
Autumn walks can be refreshing
Enjoying the warmth of the Autumn sun
Enjoying the warmth of the Autumn sun
Inspired and based on a story by Bill Bryson in Notes From a Big Country

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