Sunday September 16, 2012

Though summer is still sizzling away, fall in the Berk shires can provide a colorful explosion of reds, yellows, and oranges that could leave any Fourth of July fireworks celebration green with envy.

Every fall, city-dwellers come to the more open-spaced, foliage-friendly Berkshires to marvel at the array of colorful leaves still clinging to the branches of trees -- hence their nickname, leaf-peepers.

"We definitely get a lot of calls from leaf-peepers when it's peak season," said Rob Weis berger, the front-desk manager of the Hampton Inn and Suites in Lenox, 445 Pittsfield Road. "The first two weekends are filling up very steadily, most with people from the metropolitan area or Long Island."

The website Massvacation.com shows a foliage timetable for Massachusets, separating the state based on the leaves' peak colors. The Berkshires' is from Oct. 1-14, the earliest of the entire state.

In the two foliage seasons that Weisberger has worked the hotel, he said that calls from leaf-peepers begin as early as late August.

"October is definitely booming here on the weekends," Weisberger said.

Yearly, more than two million visitors generate about $327 million in revenue for the Berkshires, according to Lauri Klefos, president of the Berkshire Visitors Bureau.

"Fall is our second-biggest season behind summer," Klefos said. "It's a huge attraction because he have those beautiful, natural rural area. We have exactly want people want during the fall."

The website Berkshire.org lists six ideal scenic drives for leaf-peepers coming to the Berkshires.

Weather patterns can indicate how colorful, or dull, a fall season will be, according to Henry Art, a professor of environmental studies and biology at Williams College.

Sunny, warm days, followed by chillier nights are ideal for the leaves to produce anthocyanin, giving leaves their red pigments, Art said.

"If we have sunny days and cold nights like we've had this week, then the leaves get brighter colors being produced than if you have a lot of dull weather where it's warm and cloudy," he said. "But it is the last three weeks in September that are the key time for those biological processes to occur."

But one area beaming with fall colors doesn't necessarily indicate that the town over will be just as festive, thus making it hard to pick out one ideal leaf-peeping spot.

"Not all places have the same environmental conditions," Art said. "You may have better foliage in Stockbridge than you do it Pittsfield. It can vary that much depending on how cloudy, or warm, it is."

Still, the ideal pattern of warm, sunny days and cold, clear nights have already given a bit of a tease of the impending fall colors.

"Usually by the end of August, you can see little bits of it happening. By mid-October, that's when you get the full monty, so to speak," professor of botany Donald Roeder said from his office at Bard's College at Simon Rock. "You can see it happening now. The tops of the maple trees are starting to look orange. I'm looking at one right now."

A pigment called caro tenoids gives the leaves their yellow-orange tint. A much higher caretonoid is also found in carrots.

"Maples are the best in giving out colors," Roeder said. "Red oaks turn red, poplars will turn yellows, and oaks don't really show pigments -- you can actually identify species of trees by their colors in the fall."

Leaf science

Leaf-peepers may be too preoccupied to take in the gorgeous colors around them in the fall to realize that they're actually just looking at an act of science.

It's not so much that leaves are changing color as it is that they show different shades at different times of the year.

The leaves get their green tint from chlorophyll, which masks the orange or red tint given from the pigments carotenoid or anthocyanin, respectively. Carotenoids are used for photosynthesis, the process where plants synthesize their food from simple molecules.

It's that lack of sunlight that makes it challenging for leaves to keep up producing enough chlorophyll to keep the leaves green, giving way to the hidden colors that people associate with fall.