Rains trigger fall foliage burst

Last half of Oklahoma foliage season is looking up

Foliage this week in northeast Oklahoma at Spavinaw Wildlife Management Area. Photo by Shane Bevel

For the CCOF

Oklahomans are enjoying a late glimpse of fall colors thanks to some overdue October rain and a hard frost that kicked the heat and rinsed off the dust of the driest September since 1956.

Now would be a good time for a scenic drive in parts of eastern and south central Oklahoma.

“It was so dry this summer I thought, man, it might be bad. Things were starting to look brown, the oaks,” said Mark Lewis, who with his wife, Sandy, owns Big Cedar Cabins and RV Park.

Their spot on the Talimena Scenic Byway in the Ouachita Mountains of southeast Oklahoma is busy now, he said.

Oklahoma Mesonet maps show rain over the past 10 days and improved soil moisture concentrated in the eastern half of the state.

“It’s just coming on a little late, I think the drought kind of prolonged things until now. Monday we had five and a half inches of rain, looks like maybe another one and a half last night and today. Now it’s starting to come on,” he said. “We have a lot of people here right now.”

Fall foliage chasers typically enjoy a mid-October to mid-November season in Oklahoma, defined by shortened daylight hours, cool weather and moisture coming in, and a hard frost and high winds that mark the end. Onset, exit and the views change wildly from a less typical fall color palette on the high plains to the forested southeast, but all have their moments.

This autumn the brightest foliage seems to match up with maps of rainfall, drought conditions, and available soil moisture. Despite recent rains, the U.S. Drought Monitor still shows the majority of the state in “severe” to “exceptional” drought conditions—the two worst categories. Since July the theme for Oklahoma, and other states, has been above-normal temperatures and far below-normal precipitation.

It’s not that other areas are ugly, but “colors are subdued” to “brown” are the common words in social media from regions from Osage County to the northwest and west of I-35 in the southwest.

The country still is thirsty, however, and the National Weather Service’s long-term forecast shows temperatures leaning above normal and precipitation remaining below normal through mid-November. A status quo with at least some rain might be a good thing for colors to last a week or two.

An angler’s view along the Blue River near Tishomingo National Recreation Area Saturday. (Photo courtesy Bridget Kirk)

“It all soaked in here,” Lewis said of recent rains. “Our creek is barely trickling, usually you get a 5-inch rain and it’s flooding down in there.

“But it helped the trees,” he said. “It’s a beautiful drive going to Tulsa from here.”

Drought stresses trees, sometimes to the point they may turn color early or drop leaves prematurely, which naturally reduces the amount of foliage that provides a show, according to researchers at Harvard Forest who have studied cycles of the economically important New England forests since 1990. The dramatic red pigments (anthocyanins) in some tree species require sunlight for production and are enhanced by cold and sunny days.

October 18 and 19 saw low temperatures in the 20s and 30s in much of Oklahoma, a condition that put an end to many wildflowers and gardens, but apparently served to help trigger some of the autumn color changes.

The Oklahoma Department of Tourism website lists several scenic drive tours for Oklahoma with local updates for each online and offers a fall foliage brochure for download. In addition to areas along the Talimena Byway, best bets Sunday and the coming week include recommendations from Miami to Tahlequah, Tahlequah to Sallisaw, and the Chickasaw National Recreation Area and Lake Murray areas.

Kelly Bostian is an independent journalist writing for The Conservation Coalition of Oklahoma Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to education and outreach on conservation issues facing Oklahomans. To learn more about what we do and to support Kelly’s work, see the About the CCOF page.

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