Autumn leaves Pantone

The Colour Science of Autumn Leaves

It might be getting colder and darker, but nature does give us an autumn pay-off to make up for the loss of summer for another year – the amazing displays put on by trees as the season turns. It is both a beautiful annual event that will have been enjoyed in the same way by humans for millennia, and something we probably don’t think about too deeply. Why do they change colour? Because… erm… science?

Autumn leaves Pantone

Image: Chris Glass, Cincinnati, USA, via flickr.com

To be more precise, it’s chemistry. We’ve been reading up on the chemical processes within leaves that lead to this yearly change in colour, and found a fascinating info graphic put together by Compound Interest that helps explain it a little better. So let’s start at the beginning.

Why are summer leaves green?

Trees survive by the process of photosynthesis – probably the one bit of school science you remember. It’s the process where plants use energy from the sun to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugars. Key to this conversion is the chemical compound chlorophyll, held in the leaf cells, which requires warmth and light for its production. It’s also chlorophyll that makes leaves look green. As summer turns to autumn and light levels lessen, so too does the production of chlorophyll. This means that the green colour fades from the leaves, letting other chemical compounds come to the fore.

Which chemical compounds appear in autumn?

As the chlorophyll reduces then other chemical compounds become more visible. Carotenoids and flavonoids are the families of chemical compounds that we see as yellow and orange when the trees start to blaze because they fade from leaves more slowly than chlorophyll. Both sets produce yellow light waves while carotenoids – as you could guess from the name – are also responsible for red and orange hues. The carotenoids family includes beta-carotene, the orange colour in carrots, lutein, part of the yellow of egg yolks, and lycopene, which makes tomatoes look red.

What causes those wild purple leaves in autumn?

The vivid red, purple, and magenta hues that we also see on autumn leaves are from anthocyanins, another compound in the flavanoid family. They are not present in leaves all year round, but rather are produced as light levels decrease. The exact purpose of anthocyanins isn’t known. Another mystery of nature that pleases our eyes but puzzles our minds.

Chemistry-of-the-Colours-of-Autumn-Leaves

For more information about the science behind leaf colours, and any number of other everyday phenomena, visit the Compound Interest website.



Ros Anderson

About

Ros Anderson is an interiors journalist and blogger who has worked for The Guardian, Elle Decoration, Ideal Home and many more. In 2009 she co-founded cult interiors blog My Friend's House with Jill Macnair, as a place to write about design in a more honest, spontaneous and humorous way.


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