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Friday, Oct. 7, 2005 MAIN EVENT  

Up close for colors

Leave your car and get into the forests if you want to take in nature's fall show

Posted Thursday, October 06, 2005

Your fall color fix may be a little harder to come by this year.

Those of us accustomed to enjoying nature's annual autumnal show as we travel suburban streets may need to abandon our cars and actually walk into local forest preserves if we want to see much of nature's kaleidoscope.

The summer's drought, experts said, has stressed many trees to the point that they're likely to put on a poorer show than usual. Trees concentrated in cooler forests stand a better chance of turning colors.

We can expect the fall color change to be fast and early.

"It's the third driest season on record," said Richard D. Newhard, director of the Department of Resource Management for the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. "Moisture, sunlight - these are all things that affect the color."

You may have to make to make a special trip, a little farther than usual, and choose your time, to see that burst of brightness this year.

For example, the bur oak, white oak and shagbark hickory leaves were already turning brown in late September at the Crabtree Nature Center in Barrington, said Conrad Drust, a naturalist at the center.

"We're extremely dry. Several of our wetlands are almost completely dry," he said.

But other forest preserves have fared better, he said, besides having tree types more likely to color in brilliant hues. Local naturalists point to wooded areas along the Des Plaines, DuPage and Fox rivers as holding some of the top trees and shrubs for rich autumn crimsons, bronzes and bright yellows.

Sue Holt, a naturalist with the River Trails Nature Center in Northbrook, advised leaf lookers to travel trails along the Des Plaines River, where there are sugar maples and basswoods, as well as cottonwoods.

"Those are the kinds of trees that typically surround a stream," she said.

Mid-October is normally the peak time for leaf change, which usually starts around the beginning of the month and lasts until early November, but some area trees were already coloring - or just turning brown - in mid- to late September. This year, said Ron Wolford, educator with the University of Illinois Extension Service, "the color may be less intense, more patchy. Some trees may just go from green to brown to dropping leaves."

Neighborhood plantings, street trees and other roadside vegetation, will have suffered most, said Ed Hedborn, plant records manager and fall-color expert for The Morton Arboretum in Lisle.

"Stressed plants change early," he said. "In a real dry season, a plant that normally takes 10 days to two weeks to change, can take only five days."

Hedborn recommends a trip to a forest preserve or the arboretum to see trees that are likely to be in the best shape to put on a color show.

"There you have the best conditions, in a natural community of plants," he said.

He pointed out that the Morton Arboretum holds not only native trees but also such plants as viburnums from China; maples from China, Japan and Europe; and oaks from Russia, which can extend the color show beyond the normal Midwestern period.

Even so, Hedborn said, "Color change will depend on the weather.

"The main trigger for color change is the decreasing daylight. After the fall equinox, the days get shorter." That causes trees to prepare for winter by stopping their production of chlorophyll, which is what gives leaves their green color.

"When the green goes out of the leaf, it uncovers carotenes, a yellow color that's there all year round," but masked by the green chlorophyll. That accounts for the yellows and bronzes of cottonwoods and hickory trees.

However, in some plants, there's a second kind of color produced in the fall when the weather conditions are right: short days, adequate moisture, warm and bright days with cool nights.

"That's when you get the richest and brightest color," Hedborn said.

In trees such as sugar maples, warm, sunny days followed by cool nights cause the leaves to produce sugars, but the chill evenings trigger gradual closing of the tree's veins, preventing the sugars from moving out of the leaves into the trunk. That spurs the creation of anthocyanins, pigments that give off the brilliant scarlet and crimson tints so prized in these trees.

"Those are the plants that really catch our eyes," Hedborn said.

If the days aren't sunny, you don't get the sugars and the brilliant colors. Further, if there's a lot of rain and wind, the leaves can fall off early. Drought, too, can spur early leaf drop.

"I'd like to emphasize," said Valerie Blaine, a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of Kane County, "that even if the color (of tree leaves) isn't the best, there are always things to see in the forest preserves. For example, after our recent rain, there were beautiful fungi all around."

And Elizabeth Smid, a naturalist with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, said, "Fall color is not only just in trees, but also in the prairies and wetlands."

"The prairie has a rich golden color with touches of purple," said Blaine. "It hasn't been as adversely affected by the drought as the woodlands. The plants are shorter but still turning the same gorgeous colors."

"There's lots of nice color in the prairie," agreed Mark Hurley, an environmental educator with the Lake County Forest Preserve District. Hurley advised looking out for "goldenrod, and the native grasses such as the big bluestem, and the composite flowers such as asters and sunflowers that are blooming."

"You don't always have to look up," Blaine said. "You can look down."

Where's the color?

While always holding out caveats about the weather, local experts point to these sites as places where you're likely to see beautiful autumn colors this month.

Cook County

• Busse Woods, Higgins Road, Schaumburg: Trails winding through mature oak forests and meadows around Busse Lake, plus a herd of elk.

• Deer Grove, Dundee Road between Hicks Road and Northwest Highway, Palatine: Upland forests and ravine areas, with ironwoods, elms, mature oaks, hickories and maples, as well as areas of wetland and prairie remnants.

• River Trails Nature Center, 3120 Milwaukee Ave., Northbrook: Trails through sugar maple woods along the Des Plaines River.

DuPage County

• Morton Arboretum, 4100 Illinois Route 53, Lisle: The area's largest variety of trees and other plant types, with woodlands and prairie.

• Churchill Woods Forest Preserve, St. Charles Road, Glen Ellyn: 271 acres containing one of the last native prairies in DuPage County - an Illinois Nature Preserve - and the Babcock Grove savanna.

• Danada Equestrian Center, Wheaton: A 753-acre preserve, with 3 miles of trails through woodlands, prairies and marshes.

• Meacham Grove, Roselle Road, north of Lake Street, Bloomingdale: Woodlands featuring a 0.6-mile looped walking path west of Bloomingdale-Roselle Road. On the east side of Bloomingdale-Roselle Road, trails circle a 32-acre lake and wind through adjacent woodlands and wetlands.

• Tri-County State Park, Stearns Road west of Powis Road, Bartlett: 3.8 miles of trails through tallgrass prairie with wetlands, including Brewster Creek.

• West Chicago Prairie, Industrial Drive, south of Western Drive, West Chicago: 305 acres containing more than 500 native plant species in prairies, wetlands and savannas with numerous walking trails.

Kane County

• Burnidge Forest Preserve, Coombs Road, west of Randall Road, Elgin: 602 acres of rolling woodlands and prairie along a series of watersheds filtering into Tyler Creek.

• Dick Young Forest Preserve, Nelson Lake Road, Batavia: Illinois State Nature Preserve with 250 acres of marshlands featuring a diverse collection of wetland plants surrounded by oaks.

• Johnson Mound, 41W600 Hughes Road, Elburn: A heavily wooded "kame," or stratified hill of gravel (deposited by glacial ice and water some 10,000 years ago) rising 200 feet above the surrounding prairie and Blackberry Creek.

• Tekakwitha Woods, 35W076 Villa Marie Road, St. Charles: Oak, hickory and maple forest on the uplands and a second-growth forest on the edge of the "big bend" of the Fox River, as well as prairie and marsh lands.

• Tyler Creek Forest Preserve, 401 Davis Road, Elgin: 25 acres of oaks and hickories.

Lake County

• Des Plaines River Trail and Greenway, along the Des Plaines River, south of Libertyville: Mature, riverside plant life.

• Independence Grove, 16400 W. Buckley Road, Libertyville: Prairies and woodlands with a lake and a wide variety of plant life.

• Ryerson Conservation Area, 21950 N. Riverwoods Road, Deerfield: 6.5 miles of scenic trails that wind through a stately forest featuring many very tall sugar maples.

• Wadsworth Prairie Nature Preserve, east of the Des Plaines River, Wadsworth: Tallgrass prairie.

• Half Day and Wright Woods, Milwaukee Avenue south of Townline Road, Vernon Hills: 528 acres of oaks and prairie plants along the Des Plaines River.

McHenry County

• Coral Woods Conservation Area, 7400 Somerset, Marengo: A 0.4-mile trail amid sugar maples as much as 100 years old.


  • The Morton Arboretum, (630) 968-0074
  • Forest Preserve District of Cook County, (800) 870-3666
  • Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, (630) 933-7200
  • Forest Preserve District of Kane County, (630) 232-5980
  • Lake County Forest Preserve District, (847) 367-6640
  • McHenry County Conservation District, (815) 338-MCCD
  • University of Illinois Extension's "The Miracle of Fall Color"
  • The National Forest Service's Fall Color Hotline, (800) 354-4595
  • Illinois Department of Natural Resources
  • Fall colors to look for

    These plants provide some of the best color in nearby forests and prairies, according to local naturalists.

    Posted Thursday, October 06, 2005


    American basswood chartreuse to yellow

    Black oak dull red to orange brown

    Eastern cottonwood yellow

    Eastern white oak deep red to orange brown

    Hackberry yellow

    Ironwood yellow

    Northern red oak red to russet to yellow brown

    Shagbark hickory golden brown to mustard yellow

    Sugar maple bright scarlet to orange

    Wild black cherry yellow to orange

    Shrubs and vines

    Poison ivy bright red

    Staghorn sumac yellow, orange and scarlet

    Virginia creeper red

    Prairie flowers

    Blazing star purple

    Bottle gentian bright blue

    Canada goldenrod deep yellow

    Sky-blue aster light blue

    Sunflower yellow and brown

    - Leah A. Zeldes

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