Canadian writer Jay Ingram investigates the mystery of why leaves turn red in the fall
A. One of the most captivating natural events of the year in many areas throughout North America is the turning of the leaves in the fall. The colours are magnificent, but the question of exactly why some trees turn yellow or orange, and others red or purple, is something which has long puzzled scientists.
B. Summer leaves are green because they are full of chlorophyll, the molecule that captures sunlight converts that energy into new building materials for the tree. As fall approaches in the northern hemisphere, the amount of solar energy available declines considerably. For many trees – evergreen conifers being an exception – the best strategy is to abandon photosynthesis* until the spring. So rather than maintaining the now redundant leaves throughout the winter, the tree saves its precious resources and discards them. But before letting its leaves go, the tree dismantles their chlorophyll molecules and ships their valuable nitrogen back into the twigs. As chlorophyll is depleted, other colours that have been dominated by it throughout the summer begin to be revealed. This unmasking explains the autumn colours of yellow and orange, but not the brilliant reds and purples of trees such as the maple or sumac.
C. The source of the red is widely known: it is created by anthocyanins, water-soluble plant pigments reflecting the red to blue range of the visible spectrum. They belong to a class of sugar-based chemical compounds also known as flavonoids. What’s puzzling is that anthocyanins are actually newly minted, made in the leaves at the same time as the tree is preparing to drop them. But it is hard to make sense of the manufacture of anthocyanins – why should a tree bother making new chemicals in its leaves when it’s already scrambling to withdraw and preserve the ones already there?
D. Some theories about anthocyanins have argued that they might act as a chemical defence against attacks by insects or fungi, or that they might attract fruit-eating birds or increase a leafs tolerance to freezing. However there are problems with each of these theories, including the fact that leaves are red for such a relatively short period that the expense of energy needed to manufacture the anthocyanins would outweigh any anti-fungal or anti-herbivore activity achieved. photosynthesis: the production of new material from sunlight, water and carbon dioxide