Leaves are just beginning to turn, but it should be a great season for fall colors, even in northwest Minnesota, which overall has been drier than other parts of the state this year, a forest expert says.

“As long as trees have gotten adequate water all season -- January to September -- the color should be outstanding,” said Val Cervenka, forest health program consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in St. Paul. “What we need going in is healthy trees.

“In your neck of the woods, I think it’s going to be great.”

According to Cervenka, the color changes occur as the days grow shorter and leaves stop producing chlorophyll, the chemical responsible for the green color.

In response, carotenoids -- a fancy name for yellows and oranges -- become more apparent in trees, such as aspen, ash and basswood, Cervenka said, while maples and some of the oak trees that turn red begin restricting the movement of sugar out of their leaves.

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The sugars then combine with compounds in the leaves to produce the reddish- and purple-colored pigments.

“The trees that are going to be yellow, that yellow will be revealed; it’s always been there, but once the chlorophyll moves out, the yellow comes out,” Cervenka said. “But the red pigment has to be manufactured by the leaves, and so once the chlorophyll starts to go out, you just don’t see red automatically. That’s created when we have a lot of sunny days to produce sugar and chilly nights.

“That’s why we always say we need sunny days and chilly nights -- that’s to create that red color.”

Color status

Weather, such as this week’s warm snap, can delay the onset of fall colors, but long-term forecasts, which in Minnesota call for slightly above normal temperatures and normal precipitation, suggest the impact should be short lived, Cervenka said.

“We’re kind of looking to get some more chilly nights here so we can produce that color we want,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect the whole process of the fall color change.”

But, she adds, that’s only a prediction.

As of Tuesday, Sept. 17, far northwest Minnesota, including the Red River Valley, was only at 0% to 10% color, while much of Roseau County and portions of Lake of the Woods, Marshall and Beltrami counties were at 25% to 50% color.

Wildflowers, grasses, vines such as Virginia creepers and sumac -- known for their brilliant reds -- already are at or near peak.

In North Dakota, the fall foliage report from the state Department of Tourism listed the northern Red River Valley as about 10% color, while Turtle River State Park near Arvilla, N.D., is at 15% to 20% color for the yellows and reds that are prevalent in the park. The Pembina Gorge is at about 20% color, and the Devils Lake area is at about 25%.

The best is yet to come, in other words.

“In far northern reaches of (Minnesota), the peak really only lasts a couple of weeks,” Cervenka said.

In the Bemidji area, Suzanne Thomas, of Buena Vista Ski Area and Logging Village, said the maples now are “amazing” with their brilliant shades of red. The timing is perfect, since Buena Vista this weekend is hosting its annual Fall Colors Festival from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 21, and Sunday, Sept. 22, with horse-drawn wagon rides, woodcarving and blacksmith demonstrations and more on tap for visitors.

Moving the event back a week in hopes of better fall colors appears to have paid off, Thomas said.

“We’ve got a lot of color,” she said. “I’m glad we went a week later. We have a little bit of wind, but I don’t think that will bother the leaves too much.”

Whether in North Dakota or Minnesota, fall is a great time of year to see the sights and do some exploring.

“You might not see what you want to see on the highways, but start traveling some of the backroads,” the DNR’s Cervenka suggests. “It’s almost a guarantee to see a lot of interesting colors popping.”

  • More info:

Minnesota DNR Fall Colors Update: mndnr.gov/fall_colors.

North Dakota Fall Foliage Report: ndtourism.com and click the “Fall Foliage Report” link.