Fall foliage colors are in foods and flowers, too!

Cooler temperatures are here, and that means that the green leaves on the trees in your neighborhood are going to start their fall show.  This process of fall color happens as the trees break down the green chlorophyll pigment in the leaves, the compound that collects sunlight for the plant to make it’s own food.  The chemical components of chlorophyll are reabsorbed into the tree and recycled rather than being lost when the leaves fall from the tree.

As the chlorophyll fades, the other pigments in the leaves that can’t readily be seen while the chlorophyll is in place, become apparent. These pigments — reds, yellows, and oranges — don’t break down as readily as the chlorophyll does. Each tree species has a different specific combination of pigments in their leaves, giving them their own specific color. White oak leaves are a yellowy-orange, ginkgo trees turn bright yellow, and dogwood and Bradford pear trees turn a deep maroon color. Sugar maples are my favorite, as they have deep orange leaves with a spattering of red and yellow.

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Source: compoundchem.com (check them out for lots of great science infographics)

Most people don’t realize that the pigment colors that you see in the leaves are the same that you see in flowers and in the food that we eat. Most of the pigments are in a group called carotenoids. The yellow of a ginkgo leaf is the same pigment as a daffodil and a golden delicious apple. The orange of the sugar maple is the same as the orange of a daylily and a carrot. The red of a scarlet oak leaf is the same as a rose and a tomato. For further reading, check out this short article.

If you want to see what colors are hanging out in the leaves, you can do a simple color chromatography experiment with some simple household goods (it is a great project to do with kids). Read how to do it here.

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You can use chromatography to see what pigments make up your favorite leaf colors.

So not only can you enjoy your colors…you can eat them, too!  Taste the rainbow, indeed!

John Porter
Urban Agriculture Program Coordinator at Nebraska Extension

John Porter is the Urban Ag Program Coordinator for Nebraska Extension and Nebraska College of Technical Agriculture, serving both as an extension educator and professor of urban agriculture. He specializes in urban agriculture and horticulture, especially in the areas of vegetable and fruit production for home gardens and urban farms and edible landscaping.


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