Wooden bridge in a fall forest.

The Colors of Fall: 6 Fun Facts for
Your Autumn Hikes

Curious about why leaves turn orange or what draws your eyes to the colors? Here’s some trivia for your next fall hike

Fall is a breathtaking time of year, when leaves turn orange and forests begin to burst with color. While springtime brings some of the best wildflower hikes, autumn is all about leaves when the foliage morphs everything into magical wonderlands. It’s no secret that this time of year is beautiful—but have you ever stopped to wonder why? How exactly do the leaves turn these vibrant colors? Why are some yellow while others are red? And what makes it all so captivating? The answers to these questions and more lie below in our roundup of fall foliage fun facts. Check them out before your next autumn adventure.

If you don’t know where to go to see the changing leaves check out our guide on the best national parks to visit in fall.
Trees with fall leaves turning colors near a lake.
Leaves convert sunlight into sugar during photosynthesis, giving trees the energy they need to grow—the process is essentially how trees “eat.”

1. Photosynthesis is how trees eat

You may remember the word photosynthesis from grade school science class, but you might not recall exactly what it means. In short, it’s how trees feed themselves. Using a pigment called chlorophyll that’s found in their leaves, trees absorb sunlight and convert it into sugar. This is then used as energy to nourish the trees and help them grow. So basically, next time you see a tree basking in the sun, just think of it as having lunch.

2. Chlorophyll is what makes leaves green

The green color that’s typically associated with leaves comes from the pigment chlorophyll—the same stuff that’s used in photosynthesis. During the spring and summer months when the sun is shining brightly, chlorophyll is in high demand, so trees crank it out in large quantities. This overpowers other pigments in the leaves and makes them appear bright green.

3. The yellows and oranges are always present- they're just hidden

Just because the chlorophyll is dominant during the summer months doesn't mean the other colors aren’t still there. The beautiful yellows, oranges, and rusty browns that we associate with autumn are present in leaves year-round—they’re just outnumbered. The yellows come from xanthophyll, a helper pigment that assists the chlorophyll with photosynthesis. The oranges come from beta-carotene (the same one of pumpkin and carrot fame), and the brown shades come from tannins that protect the leaf tissue.
Brightly colored frozen leaves on the ground.
The red and purple colors are typically the result of sugars and saps that are trapped in the leaves, producing anthocyanins.

4. Reds and purples are due to sugars

In addition to the yellows and oranges, it’s common to see leaves with tints of red and purple in the fall. Unlike the other colors, however, which serve more active roles, these shades are typically the result of sugars and sap that’s trapped in the leaves. This process produces anthocyanins, which give the leaves their red and purple tints.

5. Evergreens stay green because of their waxy coatings

Not all trees turn shades of color in the winter. As most of us already know, evergreen varieties keep their verdant green colors all year long. This is because they don’t have regular leaves. Instead, they have needles, which are actually just leaves rolled up tightly to conserve water. To prevent the needles from freezing, they’re coated with wax that also happens to protect the chlorophyll, keeping them green year-round.

6. It's the contrast that we're attracted to

Lots of things in nature are beautiful (and also therapeutic) —so why is it that we find fall foliage so exceptionally stunning? Some psychologists think it’s because we are hardwired to appreciate visual contrasts. According to Psychology Today, the attraction begins in infancy and continues into adulthood. The theory is that seasonal change is dramatic, which causes us to subconsciously infer meaning into it, and the fact that it occurs at regular intervals may compound its significance in our minds. This may explain our mysterious draw to the season’s brilliant foliage.
Arial view of forest full of brightly colored fall leaves.
Some psychologists theorize we’re attracted to fall colors in part because of the visual contrast.
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