COLUMBIA — When the air is still at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, bronze leaves spiral to the ground just a few at a time. Strong breezes, though, bring the forest alive with a flurry of autumn confetti.
This fall's foliage show is nearing its peak in mid-Missouri. And like most years, it’s difficult to predict just how dazzling it will be. A few weeks ago, experts at the Missouri Department of Conservation predicted that warm sunny days and cool nights would produce a brilliant display. The cold, damp weather of late, however, has them backing off a bit, suggesting the colors will be more muted.
At Rock Bridge, though, the show is on. Silver maples are dropping yellow leaves with brown edges like burnt paper. Brown specks on yellow hickory leaves conjure images of the grainy picture on an old television. The bright red leaves of the sugar maple are spotted like a leopard with brown and yellow. In the canopy, where greens for now remain the dominant shades, there are plum-colored white oaks and maples as orange as pumpkins or as red as rubies.
Fall colors normally peak around Oct. 15 in mid-Missouri, according to the conservation department. But “this year has been an exception,” it said in a update on its Web site on Thursday. “Look for the peak color change through the next few days and into next week.”
It takes some science to explain the transformation. Autumn’s shorter, cooler days cause chlorophyll – the source of leaves’ green color – to starve for sunshine. As chlorophyll breaks down, the yellow pigments of carotenoids begin to appear. Reds and purples come from anthocyanins, sugars produced during warm days then trapped in the leaves on cool nights.
But chemical reactions fade from the mind when strolling through Rock Bridge or driving along South Providence Road, the eastern end of Stadium Boulevard or the winding curves of Rock Quarry Road. Science gives way to art as nature paints a complete palette of color across the landscape.