The Science of Autumn or Fall Leaves: Why Do Leaves Change Colour and Fall From the Trees?

Autumn’s beauty is clear for all to see, the myriad shades of red, yellow and brown lifting the heart on a cold but bright October morning. But the curious mind wonders “Why?” Why do the trees go through this process every year, only to grow fresh leaves every spring? And why such a variety of colours and shades – of which any artist would be proud?

Using Chlorophyll

The green leaves of summer contain chlorophyll, which drives photosynthesis – the molecular factory transforming carbon dioxide and light into glucose – which gives energy to the plant and cellulose for growth. When summer ends and autumn arrives, it is the short days which trigger the changes in deciduous trees. The chlorophyll is taken back from the leaves to be recycled, but the leaves become not just superfluous, but a liability.

Abscission Zones

In order to exert a force of suction, to draw water from the ground during the summer, leaves sweat through their high surface area. In winter these same leaves could cause the trees to dry out and die, so they must be removed. The scientific process of leaf-removal is known as abscission. When the shorter days of Autumn arrive, a number of chemical changes occur and the abscission zone at the base of the year begins to swell, cutting off the flow of nutrients from the tree to the leaf and vice-versa. The zone then begins to tear, the leaf falls off or is blown away, and a protective layer seals the wound, preventing water evaporation and entry of bugs.

Anthocyanins and Aphids

But why do the leaves go so many different colours? The removal of the chlorophyll reveals other colours in the leaf – yellow, orange and brown – but some leaves turn red or purple for another important reason. The shorter days which trigger the process of abscission, also initiate another process in the leaves of certain trees to produce a group of chemicals called anthocyanins, which are deep red or purple in colour. This is not, however, just vanity on behalf of the tree.

In fact, the red colours are used to conceal the shades of yellow which attract aphids. So, trees which are more susceptible to aphids, or are native to areas where aphids are more of a problem, are able to confuse their enemies and survive to grace another spring.

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