WASHINGTON – Fall colors will arrive earlier and be less brilliant than normal this autumn because of the strain put on trees by this summer’s drought, tree specialists say.
“Trees have been extremely stressed,” said Mike Galvin, an arborist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. “Are things as good as they should be? No.”
But science seems unable to wither optimism in Western Maryland, where several fall-oriented festivals in the coming weeks are expected to bring thousands of visitors to the region.
“We expect nothing but (the same) exceptional fall foliage as we usually have up here,” said Ken Wishnick, executive director of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.
He said the region was not hit as hard by the drought as the rest of the state.
“Even the grass stayed green,” Wishnick said.
Even if the state has less-than-brilliant fall foliage, it will not greatly affect tourism in the area, said Andrea Thomas, spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development.
Unlike New England states, Maryland draws visitors “for things other than leaves,” she said, citing hiking, Civil War re-enactments and fall festivals as examples.
The Western Maryland Scenic Railroad typically attracts more than 13,000 people during the fall, while Garrett County’s Autumn Glory Festival, Wishnick said, expects to draw up to 70,000 visitors over four days beginning Oct. 14.
The latter estimate is up about 20,000 from a typical year because this year the festival coincides with the town of Oakland’s 150th anniversary celebration.
Ed Gates, an ecologist with the Appalachian Laboratory of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said some of the trees in Frostburg are already changing colors as a result of the drought. The intensity of this year’s colors will depend on weather conditions in upcoming days, he said.
“Nice warm days and cold nights are things that really trigger nice colors,” he said.
Galvin said in a normal year, peak leaf color would occur by mid-October. “It will be a little bit earlier this year,” he said.
But much of the damage is already done. Scientists said the drought deprived trees of the water they need to synthesize elements, such as proteins and pigments, that color leaves.
Tree location, more than type, determines how it will endure drought conditions.
Galvin said droughts hit trees harder in urban areas than in forests, where sediment and fallen leaves provide nutrients and hold moisture in the soil. Forest canopies also help keep temperatures down in the woods.
Urban trees do not enjoy those benefits. Galvin said some trees in Anne Arundel County are scorched and drying up instead of turning colors.
Trees do cope better with drought than crops and lawns because of their deeper roots, said Joe Sullivan, an assistant professor with the University of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources Sciences. But still, he conceded, “it may not be the year of the highest quality of foliage.”
Western Maryland Scenic Railroad, a popular fall destination, is going with the most optimistic predictions.
“[The drought] hasn’t affected our reservations yet,” said the company’s marketing director, Michelle Mummert. “We will have something to offer with or without fall foliage.”