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Best of autumn color yet to come for Syracuse

10/4

By Sean Kirst
Syracuse Post-Standard Columnist
Monday, October 04, 2004

Every year at just about this time, Don Leopold listens as many voices on television or radio offer wildly different theories about the varied intensity of autumn colors.

Every year, Leopold listens as some of those voices insist that early October brings "peak fall foliage" to greater Syracuse. He listens to fervent discussion of how hot Julys, rainy Augusts or cool Septembers play such a critical role in whether the leaves remain dull green or burn like fire.

Leopold listens, although he said most of that isn't science. It's just myth.

"There's all this fuss made about fall color," Leopold said. "Our peak (in Syracuse) is around Oct. 25. Our peak coloration in Central New York is right around the 22nd to the 25th. That might change by five days, one way or another."

Still, that's the way it goes year after year, said Leopold, a forest ecologist with the State University College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. Yes, he said, trees in areas with poor drainage may change color a bit early because of a wet summer. That's the extent of the effect. This autumn will almost certainly follow the usual pattern, he said.

"This could be one of the best years ever," Leopold said. "There's no real way of knowing for certain."

This comes from a guy who savors the fall. While trees are part of his academic specialty, it hardly means he has grown immune to their beauty. He loves fall in the Adirondacks, where the colors, he said, are at their peak right now - a peak that's yet to come in Onondaga County.

He spoke of brilliant fall days in the southern Appalachians, which offer "a pretty spectacular sight." He spoke of how New England has earned its reputation for gorgeous autumns, with its abundance of sugar maples, paper birch trees and red maples.

Asked to nail down his favorite place to see the changing leaves in Onondaga County, Leopold immediately selected Green Lakes State Park.

"Locally, it's one of the prettiest places around," Leopold said. "It's pretty even in the summer, when everything's so green. The color of the water is so unusual. You look across the lake at this time of year, and you see a variety of hardwoods at their peak, mixed in with the white pine, the northern white cedar and the hemlock. That's hard to beat."

Some of us could make nominations of our own, such as the sprawling city views from atop Schiller Park or Woodland Reservoir or the way the whole metropolitan area opens up before you - with the towers of the city surrounded by blazing trees - when you take that big northbound bend toward Syracuse on Interstate 81.

Others might prefer the hills of LaFayette, Tully or Pompey, when the apples are ripe and the leaves are brilliant red. Then there's Elmwood Park, in Syracuse. In October, you can be alone there on the trails, with the leaves twirling down at such a constant, steady rate that you realize you can hear each one as it hits the ground.

That sound is the ultimate expression of the fall.

Leopold, then, offers this good news: At a time when somber officials say the next terrorist attack is a "when" and not an "if," at a time of beheadings and much bloodshed in Iraq, at a time when the future rarely seems to be inviting . . .

This autumn, Leopold says, has yet to hit its peak.

In someways, that's a surprise. The commentators he debunks with gentle humor keep talking about how our long, wet summer might have ruined our autumn. Leopold, a guy who really knows, doesn't buy it.

"Overall," he said, "I don't think there's a whole lot of difference."

He made these points Sunday from his home in Syracuse, where he spent much of the day in his garden. He picked a few "overripe cucumbers" and some basil, and he went inside to make a salad to go with his family's dinner. "The frost is coming," he said, which means he didn't want to waste his chance to be outside.

That same philosophy goes for the season, as a whole.

Year in and year out, Leopold said, the leaves of Syracuse change in late October. That overall pattern rarely varies, with the month building toward a few days of burning glory. As for residents who fear that our rough summer also may have ruined our fall, Leopold has these words of reassurance:

"Anybody who thinks they've missed something," he said, "absolutely hasn't."

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. His columns appear Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Call him at 470-6015 or e-mail him at citynews@syracuse.com. © 2004 The Post-Standard.

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