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Nebraska’s Varied and Vibrant Colors of October

Booo! … It’s the month when Halloween festivities and candy are aplenty. It’s the month when combines dot the rural landscape for the crop harvest. It is the month when the smell of wood smoke from fireplaces and backyard fire pits permeates the air.

And, it’s the month when leaves turn color here in the Cornhusker State.

Eastern cottonwood tree leaves beginning to turn their pretty yellow color along the Platte River near Gretna, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Ah yes, it’s October and certainly a wonderful month in Nebraska to enjoy the crisp air and various colors of fall foliage when they appear. Typically, we can find trees, shrubs, vines, flowers and grasses in green, yellow, orange, red, brown, and some purple.

The view looking up from the base of a sugar maple in rural northern Douglas County, NE, one of the most beautiful trees in fall. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

I really enjoy October and the pallette of colors with changing foliage. I think one of the most iconic things about Nebraska is the autumn scenery, making it a spectacular place to witness the season’s transformation.

Fall colors emerging near the Platte River in southeast Nebraska in early October. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

As a general reference, fall colors come into view in northwestern Nebraska around the first of October when the bull elk are bugling and peak in southeastern Nebraska woodlands when the deer are rutting just prior to Halloween.

White-tailed deer buck against background of fall color during the rut at the Eugene T. Mahoney State Park near Ashland, NE. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

But, what kind of year will it be for the fall colors of nature in your region or area of the state?

Here’s the answer.

First, understand that fall autumn colors are the result of a chemical change in the leaves. The trigger is the reduction in day length and the onset of cooler temperatures (mainly at night) which  cause the chlorophyll to exit leaves. Essentially, the reason the leaves of any deciduous (hardwood) tree or shrub change color is because of a decrease in photosynthetic activity as the days get shorter in the fall.

Several varieties of oak trees, including red, pin, scarlet, black and white oak, produce some very nice shades of red in the fall. These leaves are of a northern red oak on a southeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

According to forestry experts at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UN-L), weather really affects color intensity. Temperature, light, and water supply all have an influence on the degree and the duration of fall color.

Low temperatures above freezing favor the formation of bright red colors in maples, for example. However, an early frost will weaken the brilliant red color. Rainy and/or overcast days tend to increase the intensity of fall colors. The best time for us to enjoy autumn color in Nebraska would be on a clear, dry, and cool (not freezing) day.

Looking down from the top of Smith Falls during autumn at Smith Falls State Park along the Niobrara River near Sparks, NE. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

What about dry weather?

Drought can impact fall foliage in a variety of ways. It depends on the extent of the drought and the tree species impacted. A severe drought can stress hardwood trees and cause an early turn of their leaves. What happens then is the leaf color tends to not last as long, with some leaves browning and falling quickly.

Mid-range or moderate drought tends to delay the onset of color by about a week or two with metabolic processes slowing. Different species of trees deal with stress and drought conditions differently.

The U.S. Forest Service says dry weather has a significant impact on foliage health. Specifically, a late spring or severe summer drought, can delay the onset of fall color by a few weeks. A warm period during fall will also lower the intensity of autumn colors.

The impacts of dry weather on foliage can also be as light as “less vibrant colors” and on the other end of the spectrum can cause the early leaf browning and leaves to fall off trees before changing colors or fully changing colors.

American elm trees in eastern Nebraska are dependable producers of fall color. Their bright yellow foliage is an indicator that the seasonal transition is starting. This tree is on a southeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Studies now show as the climate has warmed during the past few decades, the onset of fall colors across much of the Northern Hemisphere has been delayed.

It’s important to point out that fall color, even a great year, for any one species of tree, shrub, vine or grass, rarely lasts more than a week or two. Some tree species, such as green ash, are colorful for only several days, at most.

Once again, please know that an early frost will end the reds, but also may limit or eliminate other fall hues and cause leaves to drop before they change color. High wind or heavy rain can also cause the leaves to fall before they fully develop color, too.

A stand of quaking aspen in fall color along West Ash Creek in the Nebraska National Forest near Crawford, NE. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission

When the proper conditions align though, we can sure revel at the brilliant fall plumage!

Bur oaks in their early autumn splendor. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
Bur oaks in autumn at Ponca State Park near Ponca, NE. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Like to have some specifics on fall foliage colors?

From information gathered through the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum, Nebraska Forest Service, Nebraska Extension and Nature Conservancy, here are some  colors and their trees, along with some vivid grasses, shrubs, wildflowers and vines to look for in the fall, specifically in October.

  • Maples produce some of the best colors. Sugar maple can be especially pleasing — with shades of yellow-orange or orange-red, depending on the variety. Red maple, as its name implies, can turn a bright red in the fall. Freeman maple is one example, including the popular variety “Autumn Blaze.” Silver maple can turn a pleasant yellow (but don’t bet the farm on it). Finally, most types of smaller ornamental maples have the ability to turn shades of yellow, orange or red.
  • Several varieties of oak, including red, pin, scarlet, black and white oak, produce shades of red, some much brighter than others. Other oaks (chinkapin, chestnut, shingle and swamp white oak) develop attractive glossy tans and browns. Shumard oak is another great oak treet that has reliable red fall color. But oaks can be a mild yellow-brown color in the fall as well. Keep in mind that oaks color later than most trees, and their leaves can persist very late into the fall.
  • White ash leaves can range in color from yellow to purple with hints of red. The commonly planted “Autumn Purple” ash turns a deep purple. Purple coloration is less common and is exhibited also by gray dogwood and some viburnums.
  • Gray dogwood and some viburnums exhibit a purple fall foliage color.
  • The eastern redbud or ‘Forest Pansy’ is also one of the few hardwood trees with reddish-purple fall foliage.
  • Sweet gum has a red fall color.
  • Green ash is one of the first trees to turn yellow in the fall. Look quickly, though, as its leaves fall shortly after color change.
  • Yellow fall leaf color is the most common in Nebraska. Local trees and shrubs that exhibit various shades of  yellow leaf color include varieties of cottonwood, ash, hawthorn, ironwood, elm, hickory, mulberry, black cherry, river birch, Osage orange, sycamore, hackberry, hazelnut, chestnut, pecan, walnut, persimmon, honey locust, and poplar. Shagbark hickory, gingko, and quaking aspen turn a radiant golden-yellow in the fall. Paper birch leaves reveal a very bright yellow leaf color during autumn. The Kentucky coffee tree’s foliage also can turn glowing yellow in the fall, but it  is often one of the first trees to drop its leaves. Willow leaves range from a golden shade to a greenish-yellow tint.
  • Pawpaw tree leaves are yellow to yellow-green in the fall.
  • Ohio buckeye autumnal foliage is yellow to orange.
  • Baldcyprus is a deciduous conifer tree that has needles that turn orange-brown before falling off for the winter months.
  • Basswood (or American Linden) fall leaves are often green to golden yellow in exceptional years.
  • Butternut leaves drop early and stay green into late fall.
  • Smooth sumac and burning bush are vibrant reds in autumn.
  • Serviceberry is one of the small trees or large shrubs that can turn yellow, orange or red in the fall, depending on the variety. The native downy serviceberry is generally red in autumn.
  • Native grasses are stunning in the fall. They hold their gold/dark orange-yellow color well into winter. Big bluestem and little bluestem are probably the best for rich reds, but Indian grass, switch grass and even prairie cordgrass have good color. Forbs such as round-headed bush clover and sunflowers provide texture as dark, interestingly-shaped accents. Native grasses can be especially colorful with morning dew.
  • For shrubs in the fall season, look for blue mist spirea with soft blue flowers on silvery foliage, rose-of-Sharon with its bright hollylock blossoms, an abundance of roses still in bloom and the subtle, yellow-to-copper blossoms of witchhazel.
  • Regarding wildflowers, fall is the time of the year when they flower. Note the blues and whites of asters, the yellows of goldenrods and sunflowers, and the spectacular red of cardinal flower?
The amber hues of warm season grasses in Conservation Reserve Program acres during fall on a southeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
  • Vines have color in the fall, too. Virginia creeper becomes a vibrant red. Poison ivy mainly is an attractive red, but can be yellow, orange or sort of a mottled mixture of these colors.

How about several pointers to give your fall color viewing trips an extra boost?

1) Head for the water. Usually where there’s water, there’s a nice diversity of hardwood trees, plus there’s the magnificent reflection of tree leaf colors on a pond, lake, reservoir or river. Go to a water body or watercourse where you have a vista. Nebraska’s water-based state recreation areas would be highly suggested.

2) The more tree species, the better colors. Do your homework, go to a natural area or arboretum where there’s a variety of tree species because there you’re going to get the palate of colors together.

3) Elevation is awesome! The places that have some elevation or topography is where you generally will have a variety of tree types. In addition, the views are better. Think bluffs, river and creek valleys as well as overlooks. The Nebraska state parks offer great vantage points for photographing and viewing colors. Indian Cave State Park in southeast Nebraska comes strongly recommended!

Gorgeous fall colors at scenic Indian Cave State Park near Shubert, NE. Photo by Kevin Holliday/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

4) Bright color along I-80. The fall yellow color of cottonwood tree leaves can certainly make the drive along Interstate 80 across Nebraska a much more pleasant one!

5) Don’t overlook taking fall color drives on Nebraska’s scenic byways either.  These routes typically follow or crisscross river and creek systems that have an array of hardwood trees growing along their banks and in the hills above them. One of my favorite drives for fall colors in mid to late October involves taking the backroads from Arbor Lodge State Historical Park in Nebraska City to Indian Cave State Park near Shubert.

6) Plan to take a float trip on one of our water trails to fully enjoy the fall colors of nature. Combined with a water perspective, the colors will have an added dimension.

7) Around the Omaha-metro area, some good places to view fall colors are Elmwood Park, Fontenelle Forest, Ponca Hills area and the Keystone/Big Papio Trails Network.

Fall paddlers on the lower Niobrara River go through scenic Smith Falls State Park near Sparks, NE. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

When it comes right down to it, leaf peepers, who needs a trip to the northeastern part of the U.S. or to the Ozarks to see fall tree foliage in full color? We have plenty of fall color to be viewed here in Nebraska during the month of October!

While poison ivy is green during summer, it can change to a brilliant red, orange or yellow in fall. It’s one of the first plants to change colors each autumn. You do not have to look far f0r pretty fall colors! Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Enjoy the autumnal weather and the warm colors while they last because winter is just around the bend!

Justin Haag’s aerial shot of Chadron State Park in Dawes County. Fall colors adorn the Chadron Creek corridor and Chadron State Park. Photo courtesy of NEBRASKAland Magazine/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Communications and Marketing Specialist and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media channels, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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