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Autumn Leaves: How Plants Prepare for Winter
by Science Made Simple

How Plants Prepare for Winter

All summer, with the long hours of sunlight and a good supply of liquid water, plants are busy making and storing food, and growing. But what about wintertime? The days are much shorter, and water is hard to get. Plants have found many different ways to get through the harsh days of winter.

Some plants, including many garden flowers, are called "annuals," which means they complete their life cycle in one growing season. They die when winter comes, but their seeds remain, ready to sprout again in the spring.

"Perennials" live for more than two years. This category includes trees and shrubs, as well as herbaceous plants with soft, fleshy stems. When winter comes, the woody parts of trees and shrubs can survive the cold. The above ground parts of herbaceous plants (leaves, stalks) will die off, but underground parts (roots, bulbs) will remain alive. In the winter, plants rest and live off stored food until spring.

As plants grow, they shed older leaves and grow new ones. This is important because the leaves become damaged over time by insects, disease and weather. The shedding and replacement continues all the time. In addition, deciduous trees, like maples, oaks and elms, shed all their leaves in the fall in preparation for winter.

"Evergreens" keep most of their leaves during the winter. They have special leaves, resistant to cold and moisture loss.evergreen needlesevergreen needles Some, like pine and fir trees, have long thin needles. Others, like holly, have broad leaves with tough, waxy surfaces. On very cold, dry days, these leaves sometimes curl up to reduce their exposed surface. Evergreens may continue to photosynthesize during the winter as long as they get enough water, but the reactions occur more slowly at colder temperatures.

During summer days, leaves make more glucose than the plant needs for energy and growth. The excess is turned into starch and stored until needed. As the daylight gets shorter in the autumn, plants begin to shut down their food production.

Many changes occur in the leaves of deciduous trees before they finally fall from the branch. The leaf has actually been preparing for autumn since it started to grow in the spring. At the base of each leaf is a special layer of cells called the "abscission" or separation layer. All summer, small tubes which pass through this layer carry water into the leaf, and food back to the tree. In the fall, the cells of the abscission layer begin to swell and form a cork-like material, reducing and finally cutting off flow between leaf and tree. Glucose and waste products are trapped in the leaf. Without fresh water to renew it, chlorophyll begins to disappear.

The bright red and purple fall foliage colors come from anthocyanin (an-thuh-'si-uh-nuhn) pigments. These are potent antioxidants common in many plants; for example, beets, red apples, purple grapes (and red wine), and flowers like violets and hyacinths. In some leaves, like maple leaves, these pigments are formed in the autumn from trapped glucose.

Why would a plant use energy to make these red pigments, when the leaves will soon fall off? Some scientists think that the anthocyanins help the trees keep their leaves a bit longer. The pigments protect the leaves from the sun, and lower their freezing point, giving some frost protection. The leaves remain on the tree longer, and more of the sugars, nitrogen and other valuable substances can be removed before the leaves fall. Another possible reason has been proposed: when the leaves decay, the anthocyanins seep into the ground and prevent other plant species from growing in the spring.

Brown fall foliage colors come from tannin, a bitter waste product. Other colors, which have been there all along, become visible when the chlorophyll disappears. The orange colors come from carotene ('kar-uh-teen) and the yellows from xanthophyll ('zan-thuh-fil). They are common pigments, also found in flowers, and foods like carrots, bananas and egg yolks. We do not know their exact role in leaves, but scientists think they may be involved somehow in photosynthesis. Different combinations of these pigments give us a wide range of colors each fall.

As the bottom cells in the separation layer form a seal between leaf and tree, the cells in the top of the separation layer begin to disintegrate. They form a tear-line, and eventually the leaf is blown away or simply falls from the tree.

One more important question remains. What causes the most spectacular display? The best place in the world for viewing fall colors is probably the Eastern United States. This is because of the climate there, and the wide variety of deciduous trees. The brightest colors are seen when late summer is dry, and autumn has bright sunny days and cool (low 40's Fahrenheit) nights. Then trees make a lot of anthocyanin pigments. A fall with cloudy days and warm nights brings drab colors. And an early frost quickly ends the beautiful fall foliage color display.


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