How I love these West Virginia hills

“Oh, the hills (beautiful hills), Beautiful hills (beautiful hills), How I love those West Virginia hills!”

This poem was written in 1879 and then put to music in 1885 by Henry Everett Engle. Thought to have been inspired by the mountains in the Glenville area, the original author is disputed, but credited to Ellen Ruddell King, although her husband, Reverend David King, may have written part of the lyrics.

While it may have been written about the Glenville area, the hills and mountains are beautiful throughout West Virginia and never more beautiful than in October.

As we are making plans for road trips and outings to enjoy the color, let’s take a minute to understand why the leaves display brilliant colors in the fall.

The simple answer is they are saving nutrients and conserving water for winter weather.

Eden Clymire-Stern, ANR (Agriculture and Natural Resources) Extension Educator at West Virginia State University Extension, recently presented on this topic during the Fall into Gardening series of lectures.

Leaf colors result from three factors: leaf pigment, length of the night, and weather. Clymire-Stern explained how each of these three points affects fall color.

Plants have different pigments that give different colors to each leaf. Carotenoid pigments give leaves their orange color. Flavonoids create the yellow colors; Anthocyanin makes the red, purple, and orange.

The more familiar chlorophyll gives leaves their green color and works through photosynthesis to create food for the plants. As the length of darkness increases in the fall, chlorophyll production decreases and then stops. As this happens, the Carotenoid and anthocyanin and the colors they produce become more visible.

As you are out leaf peeping this fall, keep in mind the red leaves often are red oak, sourwood, black tupelo, red maple, dogwood, and sumac. The orange leaves can be hornbeam and persimmon. Yellow and gold leaves are from hickories, aspen, yellow-poplar, and sycamore trees.

Sugar Maple, sassafras, and sweetgum trees can have different colors on one tree.

One of the traits of the fall season is the sunny days and cool nights. This makes me happy, and it makes trees happy. The shorter days and longer nights stimulate the change of leaf color as the overnight temps reach 32 -45 degrees, the veins carrying water through the leaves close or clog, trapping sugars and producing more anthocyanin (red, purple, and orange), then eventually falling off the tree.

Evergreen trees such as fir, pine, hemlock, cypress, and spruce keep their leaves year-round, well – because they are evergreen. They will survive in much colder and drier conditions. The same is true for trees with waxy leaves, such as magnolia and holly.

Summer vacations are fun, but for me, nothing beats a West Virginia back road in the fall. As the seasons and landscape change, I encourage you to spend an afternoon soaking in the beauty of our state when the mountains are ablaze with color.

To help plan your fall adventures, West Virginia Tourism gives weekly updates and leaf maps on its website: https://wvtourism.com/seasons/fall/.

Additional tree information and maps can be found on the West Virginia Division of Forestry site: https://wvtourism.com/seasons/fall/ .