Ask Ellen: Why are the leaves changing on some trees already?

Ask Ellen

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Don’t panic: It’s not fall yet! Still, trees across West Michigan have already started giving up their green and switching to fall colors.

One viewer spotted an especially transformed patch of trees in Delton last weekend in Barry County.

Megan Avery was able to get these aerial shots from a hot air balloon this past week. It’s not just a few leaves that have changed color, but a full span of forest!

Aerial shots from a hot air balloon in Barry County’s Denton captures leaves changing colors on trees in early August. (Courtesy: Megan Avery)

TREES ONLY CHANGE IN EARLY AUGUST IF THEY ARE STRESSED

Leaves change in the fall every year because of shortening days. The lack of light tells the tree to shut down for the winter, allowing the leaves to change and then drop. But days have only just begun to shorten, and we are still in the part of the year with some of the longest “days” on the calendar! The reason why leaves are changing in early August is stress.

There are three weather factors that can cause tree stress drastic enough for early leaf pop: Excess heat, excess rain or drought.

So far this season, we have seen both drought and an excess of rain, although excessive heat has not been an issue. Most of Michigan was in severe drought moving out of May. Then, June came dishing out a surplus of some 6″ to 8″ in spots! Delton was one such area that has seen a surplus of rain in the last 60 days.

Still, you would expect more of Barry County to be sporting the reds, yellows and oranges of fall if drought and excess rain were to blame, since the entire county was subjected to those conditions. The more likely culprit is bugs.

BUGS COULD BE THE BIGGER ISSUE

Biologists point to pests as being one of the big reasons for early leaf change. When a tree is exceptionally stressed by bugs, it will stop producing chlorophyll as a last resort, hoping to trick the bugs into thinking it is fall. The bugs will bounce from a tree once it thinks the leaves are dying, hoping to find food that is still alive.

Large areas of trees that are all changing are likely dealing with some sort of pest. Looking at the Delton pictures again, you can see heavy leaf drop along with the color change. That’s a good indication the trees are dealing with more than just the weather for this particular spot.

DOES THIS MEAN AN EARLY FALL OR A HARSH WINTER?

Some, along with Megan, have asked if early changing leaves at the start of August means we are in for a heavy winter. The answer to that question is, no. As we’ve seen above, the leaf change is due to what has already happened to the trees and not an indication of what might happen down the road.

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