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Kansas City’s peak fall foliage season is getting shorter. Here’s where to enjoy the colors

A person walks a dog along a paved path in a park where a bright red maple tree stands near other trees with green leaves.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
A lone maple tree in Columbus Park adds a splash of color near the path that wends through the square.

While a prolonged drought and hot days have delayed the prime fall colors, leaves are finally beginning to change. Tree experts and amateur leaf admirers share their favorite places to view the splendor.

The trees in the Kansas City area are beginning to produce peak fall foliage, but not all at the same time

The routine of changing colors is dependent on the weather. A sudden burst of warm or cloudy weather can mute the colors of the leaves even after they’ve started changing. Prolonged warm weather early in autumn delays the changing colors, pushing peak foliage later into the year.

According to the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Kansas City area’s peak fall color is still in progress, depending on the type of tree.

Extreme drought conditions have been affecting the metro for months, causing some trees to lose their leaves early, sometimes without producing any color at all. Many ash trees have died due to an invasive emerald ash borer, a beetle that feeds on the tree. Others are behind the normal peak color schedule and are still green.

Pat Whalen, a naturalist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said those late trees are what will give the area most of its fall color.

“The bad conditions are that it's been so dry,” he said, “but the good conditions for classic fall color, cool nights — which of course we've had in the last three or four nights — followed by sunny days, is a recipe for some really bright fall color.”

“Unfortunately there aren’t enough trees that have healthy green vibrant leaves to turn into color. They've mostly dried it up,” Whalen said.

During the growing season, trees absorb the light spectrum and reflect a green color. But when the days get shorter in the fall, leaves begin to turn the seasonal shades of reds, oranges, yellows and even purples.

“The green color goes away, and underneath that we have basically two kinds of compounds,” said Hank Stelzer, a professor of forestry with the University of Missouri Extension. “One is the carotenoids – that makes our yellows.”

The other is anthocyanins, which are produced through a combination of bright, sunny days and cool nights. With the help of the cold, the trees form a boundary layer around where they’re attached to the branches.

“The sugars and the food that the leaves are still kind of producing stay trapped in the leaves, and they make those new, purple compounds,” Stelzer said. “So it's the disappearance of the green and the revealing of the oranges and the yellows and the production of the purples.”

Closeup image of two orange maple leaves against the sky. The sun is shining through them.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
With the changes in temperature and length of daylight, chlorophyll breaks down and the green disappears from leaves. The red in maple leaves comes from anthocyanin, an antioxidant that also gives some fruit and vegetables bright red colors.

Drought conditions hurt health of trees

According to Anne Wildeboor, a horticulturist at the Overland Park Arboretum, the drought and warm weather earlier in the year have harmed the overall health of trees in the area.

“Because we are in a drought and things are so dry, the leaves are starting to drop without giving a really good show of color,” Wildeboor said. “The tree is stressed because it's really dry, and so they're just saying, ‘You know what? I'm done for the year. We're just going to just drop and be done.’”

Maple, black walnut, ginko, dogwood, oak and sumac trees are still in the process of turning and will soon show vibrant hues. The peak fall color period starts this weekend and will last about two weeks, so long as a hot snap or windy days don’t blow the leaves down early.

For prime leaf watching, Whalen suggests waiting for rain. While the bright sunlight tells the trees to begin turning their leaves, it's the rain that makes the colors shine, he said.

“To get optimum fall color you want slightly overcast days, preferably after a rain,” Whalen said. “It's the best time to take pictures because the light reflects off the leaves. So when it's overcast, the color is absorbed and it just looks more vibrant, more colorful.”

The National Weather Service is currently forecasting a 30% chance of showers Sunday night leading into a 90% chance on Monday, Oct. 24, with another chance for rain later in the week.

Where to see peak tree foliage

Fall foliage experts and amateur leaf admirers recommend Loose Park, Swope Park, Gillham Park, Cliff Drive, Kessler Park, Maple Woods Natural Area and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s expansive lawn for vibrant trees in the Kansas City, Missouri, area.

On the Kansas side of the state line, Black Hoof Park, Mill Creek Streamway Park, Indian Creek Trail, and the Overland Park Arboretum & Botanical Gardens are highly-prized for their colorful views.

For those who want to get out of the city and enjoy scenic views of our area’s trees, Whalen believes Missouri Highway 45, which follows the Missouri River bluffs from Kansas City to St. Joseph and skirts Weston Bend State Park, shows off the best of the region’s colors.

“I think everyone is trying to get outside and enjoy a little piece of outdoors while it's really lovely,” Wildeboor said of the Arboretum’s autumnal boom of visitors. “Lots of people want to come to see the leaves, lots of kids want to find the biggest leaves that they can to take home.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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