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Trees are stressed right now because of lack of water, local experts say, and the severity of the drought may cause the leaves to transition from green to brown, without any brilliant colors in between. This tree is off Lucas Ferry Road in Limestone County.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Trees are stressed right now because of lack of water, local experts say, and the severity of the drought may cause the leaves to transition from green to brown, without any brilliant colors in between. This tree is off Lucas Ferry Road in Limestone County.

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Legends of a fall
After a drought in 2006, foliage experts were pleasantly surprise with a burst of fall colors. Will this year's severely dry conditions produce a less-than-brilliant display?

By Danielle Komis Palmer · 340-2447

Predicting fall leaf color is a tricky business — especially during a drought.

Some drought years, the leaves surprise fall foliage enthusiasts with a brilliant color show. And other years, they disappoint with dull browns and oranges.

As we head into peak fall color season, local tree experts are split on which way leaf colors will go this year. While many predict a less-than-brilliant fall, how dull the fall might be is still uncertain.

Robert Maddox, a forester with the Alabama Forestry Commission office in Morgan County, is not optimistic.

"There's going to be a lack of spectacular fall color," he said. "The trees are so stressed right now that there just isn't enough water or food for them to where they can make the transition. They're going to go right from green to brown."

While he and other foresters had the same dire prediction last year and then were surprised by the brilliant fall colors, Maddox said he doesn't see that happening again this year.

"It was a surprise to all of us last year," he said. "Evidently there was enough water in the soil they could tap into. ... But now that the drought has continued, there's even less water (than last fall)."

Record drought

This year is the driest year to date for the Huntsville area, according to the National Weather Service in Huntsville. Since the start of the year, Huntsville is in a rainfall deficit of almost 23 inches. The chances of receiving normal or above normal rainfall from now through December are about even, said Michelle Parcus, NWS meteorologist.

"We're kind of stuck in the middle," she said.

The area's drought is classified in the category of "exceptional drought" — the most serious of the categories created by the U.S. Drought Monitor.

Color delay

If the area is lucky enough to see any leaf colors this year the colors will probably be delayed, said Glen Gaines, district ranger at Bankhead National Forest.

The normal time to view leaves in North Alabama is usually late October to mid-November, he said.

But even if red, yellow and orange leaves arrive late, there will probably be fewer to look at, he said.

'Tough year'

"Some of the trees have already begun to lose some leaves because of the drought, so there might not be as much foliage," he said. "It's been a tough year."

Trees drop their leaves as a survival mechanism against drought because they lose water through their leaves.

Severe weather could knock off even more leaves, Gaines said.

Survival mechanisms are necessary at this point because some trees are even dying, Maddox said.

Hardwoods are having the most difficult time because their horizontal root system depends on water close to the surface — where there isn't any water stored, he said.

Any hope left?

Would any factors improve the forecast for beautiful fall foliage?

Two weeks of steady rain may help produce some fall color, though that much rain is unlikely at this point, Maddox said. Only steady rain will help, because the dry ground can't absorb water quickly enough if there's a downpour. Instead of absorbing into the ground, water ends up running into the rivers.

Lamar Marshall, environmentalist and Bankhead National Forest enthusiast for 40 years, said he hopes a late period of fall rain will help save fall colors like it did last year.

"If we get some rain in these last few weeks before the peak season gets close, there may be a chance at some beautiful colors," he said. "I've got my high hopes that we're going to be surprised."

Want a fall foliage forecast?

Local updates: Weekly updates will be available from the Bankhead National Forest district ranger station, probably starting next week, said district ranger Glen Gaines. Call (205) 489-5111 for the updates.

For fall foliage updates elsewhere, call the U.S. Forest Service fall foliage hot line at (800) 354-4595. The automated voice system is updated weekly with information about peak fall foliage colors in various regions throughout the country. For hot spots, visit

Scenic fall driving loops

For the optimists who still have hope that fall foliage will be colorful this year, here are some driving loops for leaf watching in Bankhead National Forest. Most of these are near the Sipsey Wilderness area.

n Lawrence County 6 to Winston County 60 from Alabama 33 to Rabbittown

n Alabama 33 from Double Springs to Moulton

n Alabama 33 to Forest Service roads 208, 229 and 213.

For more driving trails in Alabama go to

Nearby train excursions

If you like the idea of checking out fall foliage and hearing the nostalgic sound of a train whistle, then you may want to sign up for one of these upcoming train excursions.

The North Alabama Railroad Museum offers multiple trips in fall starting from its restored Chase Depot. Regular excursions cover 10 miles of track and cost $12 for adults and $8 for children under 12.

On Saturday, the locomotive will make two regular 90-minute trips at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

n The Goblin Train — a 35-minute train ride designed for children under 10 — will take off Oct. 27 at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 for adults and children for this ride.

n The “Fall Color Special” 90-minute ride will take to the tracks Nov. 3 at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Call 851-6276 or visit for more information.

The Tennessee Central Railway Museum also offers scenic passenger train rides. Upcoming rides will meander through Middle Tennessee on Saturday and Oct. 20 and 27. The trips wind through Caney Fork River valley and the bluffs at Sebowisha. Regular tickets are $49 and first class seats are $66. Children under 12 are $28. All seats are reserved, and organizers recommend booking as far in advance as possible because seats sell out quickly. Call (615) 244-9001 or visit for more information.

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