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Austin is getting a great leaf season, and no one saw it coming

Colorful leaves on trees along Lady Bird Lake below the Austin skyline.
Mose Buchele
/
KUT
During drought, leaves can wilt and slowly start falling off prematurely. That’s what was happening in Austin, but then in mid-November, a cold front and a long, soaking rain arrived.

If you’ve walked around Central Texas or even just checked social media lately, you might have noticed the colors. Leaves of deep red, burnt orange and bright yellow abound far more than in a typical fall.

The foliage is all the more welcome because it was a surprise, even to those who study trees for a living.

“It made a liar out of me in a good way,” said Karl Flocke, a woodland ecologist with the Texas A&M Forest Service. “I was expecting not much, and we’re really getting a lot of great stuff here at the end of the season.”

Flocke said this year’s severe drought lowered expectations for good fall colors in many parts of the state.

The colors won’t last much longer, though, probably only until the next big gust of wind or strong rain.
Mose Buchele
/
KUT
The abundance of brightly colored leaves in Austin this fall came as a surprise.

“During drought, trees will put on stunted leaves, or they will start to wilt during the summertime,” he said. “Sometimes they'll prematurely change into yellows and ... slowly start falling off prematurely.”

That’s exactly what was happening in Central Texas through our dry October and right up until mid-November, when a cold front and a long, soaking rain arrived.

The rain perked up drought-weary trees right as the cold worked its chemical magic in the leaves.

The water wasn’t nearly enough to end the drought, but the reinvigorated trees got a final burst of energy to produce compounds that both prepare them for winter and lead to colorful foliage.

Brightly colored trees line Lady Bird Lake.
Mose Buchele
/
KUT
The trees along Lady Bird Lake are especially bright right now.

"It really took both coming together,” Flocke said. “The cold was inevitable, but because we got [it] along with the extra moisture, I think that's what gave the trees the kick to produce these extra chemicals.”

Most of Central Texas is not known for fall colors. But we do sometimes get standout years, like in 2018.

When it happens, cold weather and rain are always key ingredients. In some places, a greater diversity of non-native plants may also play a role, though Flocke warns that some of those may be invasive and should not be encouraged.

When it comes to this year, the colors won’t last much longer, probably only until the next big gust of wind or strong rain.

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at mbuchele@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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