BEMIDJI, Minn. — Fall colors in Minnesota may "leaf" some folks feeling disappointed this autumn season.

Those brilliant glowing reds, bright oranges and golden yellows that we’ve come to expect across the Northland landscape once days grow shorter and chillier may appear muted and even reveal themselves prematurely this year, according to Val Cervenka, forest health program coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

This change is due to much of the state experiencing its worst drought since 1988, which has created stress for trees and plants during the growing season. Some trees respond to drought stress by skipping the fall color change altogether while other trees’ leaves turn brown and fall off faster than usual.

Cervenka explained that trees lose moisture from their leaves constantly, but when in a drought, many shed them to conserve moisture. They will also go dormant as fast as possible in the fall to conserve stored up energy, resulting in them deviating from their color display.

“Drought tends to make fall colors appear early and also tends to dull them, so we could expect to see less brilliance this year,” Cervenka said. “Trees need to be healthy going into a fall for great color. If they're not healthy -- if they're under stress from lack of water -- they're just not going to be producing those colors.”

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The leaves on a sugar maple tree are already bright with color on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Bemidji. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
The leaves on a sugar maple tree are already bright with color on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Bemidji. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

An early start

Fall colors in Minnesota typically peak mid-to-late-September through mid-October, starting in the northernmost part of the state and working southward.

However, the DNR launched its annual Fall Color Finder map two weeks earlier this year, as some trees were reported to already be turning in August because of the drought. The map shows the percentage of leaves at their peak color throughout the state and will be updated weekly through October.

Cervenka, who is based in St. Paul, said it’s difficult to predict how fall foliage will develop (or not) across the state this year. For example, she has noticed leaves falling in the Twin Cities for weeks already, but recently visited the Gunflint Trail along the North Shore and saw very little color change.

Val Cervenka, forest health program coordinator for the Minnesota DNR, explained that trees lose moisture from their leaves constantly, but when in a drought, many shed them to conserve moisture. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
Val Cervenka, forest health program coordinator for the Minnesota DNR, explained that trees lose moisture from their leaves constantly, but when in a drought, many shed them to conserve moisture. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

In a typical year, peak fall color lasts about two weeks, but can vary widely depending on location, elevation and weather. Additionally, trees at higher elevations are the earliest to show color change.

“Peak length really depends because if there's a big rainstorm or windstorm in any of these spots, leaves could blow off because they're ready to go anyway,” Cervenka said. “When leaves are changing color, there is a layer of cells right where the leaf attaches to the twig and that layer of cells increases, which allows the leaf to finally just drop off.”

Where to look

In places like Beltrami County, where the U.S. Drought Monitor registers more than half of the county at a D4-level (the highest and most severe level), Cervenka predicts that much of the fall foliage will be suppressed by the dryness.

And even if drought-ridden areas receive rain throughout September, it will be too late to help the trees. The effects of the drought will also not be known until next year -- maybe even beyond that, Cervenka noted.

“If the leaves are already brown, they're not going to turn back. Trees that are under stress are going to stay under stress. We would have to get a lot of rain from now until frost for trees to come out of being stressed,” Cervenka said. “But if that happens, it’s more a question of will these trees make it through the winter, as opposed to will these trees be able to recover enough to have good fall color.”

The leaves on a sugar maple tree begin their fall transition to orange and yellow on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Bemidji. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
The leaves on a sugar maple tree begin their fall transition to orange and yellow on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Bemidji. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

Nevertheless, for now, she insists that by milking this season’s sour lemons, leaf peepers are still able to create lemonade -- it may just take a keen eye to see vibrant pockets of fall color in dry places; or a trip to a new and unlikely place where conditions are better.

“When turning happens, I think it's just going to take more looking to find pockets where the trees have had adequate moisture, like around lakes or ponds,” Cervenka said. “I've been trying to paint a picture of going out and being surprised by some great patches of color. Be ready for a good surprise as opposed to just thinking it's all not going to be worth it or not going out this year.”

She added that some of the more drought-tolerant trees native to Minnesota may be spared and give off a pop of color this season. These include oak, hackberry, eastern red cedar, honey locust, elm and catalpa. Prairie grasses and wildflowers may prove to be the star of the show in some areas, as they’re not as affected by the drought because of their deep roots that seek out water, she said.

In the Beltrami area, Cervenka expects tamarack will still turn yellow and deciduous species will turn a “beautiful golden color” that will contrast with the spruce and pines.

“It's one of the most beautiful things up there in that region,” Cervenka said.

Steer south

But the region she expects will be the premier fall color destination is the southern part of the state, as some of its counties have been drought-free this year. She noted the irony of it as most leaf peepers travel north -- especially to the North Shore -- to see fall foliage.

“From everything I've heard, southern and southeastern Minnesota could potentially be a great destination this year -- kind of an opposite destination, if you will,” Cervenka said. “I would really steer towards the southern state forests because there are some great drives people can take.

For example, as you head down Highway 61 along the eastern border of the state, I think people are going to find that they are pleasantly surprised by some beautiful fall color this year.”

While Cervenka doesn’t expect northern Minnesota fall foliage will be very worthwhile this season, she said she doesn’t want to dissuade people from visiting areas like the North Shore.

“I don't want to turn people away from going to a state park because there's still going to be stuff to do there, but I would not count on this being a fall to make (the North Shore) your destination for fall colors,” Cervenka said. “I would say go to your favorite parks and be prepared to be surprised if there's good color. Then try to enjoy being on the shore or the lake, or just being outside. There's plenty of other things to enjoy.”

In a typical year, peak fall color lasts about two weeks but can vary widely depending on location, elevation and weather. Additionally, trees at higher elevations are the earliest to show color change. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)
In a typical year, peak fall color lasts about two weeks but can vary widely depending on location, elevation and weather. Additionally, trees at higher elevations are the earliest to show color change. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)

She added that if one does visit that area this fall, they can expect to see sumac turning as well as the prairie grasses and native wildflowers up the shore.

“If you're near a lake or the vista there, no matter if fall colors are dull or not, it's always going to be beautiful because you've got that blue water,” Cervenka said.

She also suggested seeking out places with “a lot of change in topography and hilliness” as different species of trees grow at various elevations.

“That contrast usually provides some good fall color,” Cervenka said.

Despite this being an atypical fall in Minnesota for leaf-peeping, Cervenka encourages folks to get out and explore the state to see what colorful surprises they may discover. She said this is an opportunity to use one's other senses — rather than just sight — to appreciate the outdoor experience of autumn.

“You can still enjoy the smell of the leaves and all that fall has to offer,” Cervenka said. “I would just hate to tell people that this is all going to clear up and to go ahead and do your thing. Instead, try a different park this year and see what you find. It's kind of like making lemonade out of lemons.”