For fall color lovers, the chemistry is off Dry spell, warm days have drained leaves of their dramatic hues

October 18, 1997|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

It ain't pretty out there.

Tourists flocking to Maryland's back roads to ooh and ahh at the bold reds, yellows and oranges of fall are having to settle for

patches of ocher, umber and sienna.

Too little rain in some spots and too many warm days in others are keeping the lid on the annual celebration.

"It's kind of an odd year," says Peggy Jamison, economic development specialist for Garrett County. "You see an occasional brilliant red or yellow, but they are few and far between.

"For people not used to the colors we can generate, these colors seem pretty. But when you're used to the vibrant colors you think, 'Wait till next year.' "

Creating the perfect vista takes the right ingredients at the right time: Rain in spring and summer; warm, sunny days and brisk nights as fall takes hold; and no leaf-ripping gusts leading to the peak of color.

This summer, when farmers and gardeners couldn't buy a soaking rain, experts warned the drought would cause a foliage flop.

"The trees shut down their food making," explains David Clement, director of the Home and Garden Information Center of the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. "They became stressed and dropped their leaves early as a defense mechanism."

In Garrett County, where the season is past, officials placed blame elsewhere.

"It wasn't the drought," says Jim Simms, Garrett County agricultural agent. "We didn't have an early killing frost, which is the key to getting good color."

No matter what the reason, the results have been the same. Poplars began turning yellow in July, and in some places, they have lost almost 70 percent of their leaves. Maples are dropping foliage almost as their colors are changing. And oak trees are bypassing red in their annual transition from green to brown.

"Instead of getting consistency and moving from color to color, it's just sort of boom, boom, boom, over," says Bryan Butler, a horticulture specialist at the Carroll County Cooperative Extension Service.

Leaves mean money: October brings Allegany County almost half of its tourists; Garrett County gets more than a quarter of its annual visitors in September and October; Frederick County reaps at least one-third of its tourism dollars in the fall.

Still, they come

The lack of color, however, has not deterred the true foliage aficionado, who is driven lemming-like to the countryside to sit in awe-inspiring traffic and lung-burning bus fumes.

As in autumns past, visitor centers from Garrett to Frederick are filled with motorists trying to find the best gawk for the gas.

Unlike previous years, the weather has made that a hard route to map.

"The weather varied by yards instead of miles this year," Butler explains. "For foliage drives, that's going to be tough. They'll have to be patient.

"I'm looking out my office window, which I call my color meter, and I see a red, two browns, two greens and a bare tree."

Still, the faithful come.

Many of the trips on the Western Maryland Scenic Railroad's 16-mile run from Cumberland to Frostburg are booked. Last weekend, the Catoctin Color Fest in Thurmont drew 200,000 and more than 50,000 people visited the 30th Autumn Glory Festival in Garrett County, despite temperatures more in keeping with Labor Day.

More than color

"We're not just marketing the fall colors," says Maggy McPherson, a spokeswoman for Carroll County. "When you have full fall colors, that's a bonus."

Butler, the Carroll County tree expert agrees.

"What I would suggest is people stop at farm stands and buy a pumpkin or go on a hayride and make that the emphasis of their trip this year instead of color."

Pub Date: 10/18/97

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