By Errol Castens/NEMS Daily Journal
Autumn officially begins at 4:05 a.m. Friday, but the peak of color in Northeast Mississippi’s foliage is several weeks away. Unlike the fabled falls of New England and the Great Lakes, this region’s long transition highlights a few different species every week or two throughout the season.
Before the foliage moves into high gear, one of the visual delights is wildflowers. Swamp grasses send up ornamental seedheads of pink and purple while goldenrod and perennial sunflower turn some landscapes golden.
Natchez Trace Parkway Ranger Terry Wildy said another wildflower to enjoy now is jewelweed, whose red blooms are a payoff for hikers willing to search out moist areas of forest. At the Rock Spring site just north of the Tennessee River, she said, “jewelweed is blooming by the ton.”
Most trees will only begin turning just as wildflowers fade, but a few already have signaled the start of fall. Sumac has peaked in places, but it’s being replaced with the first flushes of maroon from dogwood and blood red from sassafras and the blazing yellows, arresting reds and stunning purples of sweetgum.
It is safe to say leaf peeping in the Mid-South isn’t the industry that it is in Vermont, but autumn color does attract visitors and their money. Pickwick Belle (www.pickwickbelle.com), a sightseeing riverboat based just north of the Mississippi-Tennessee line on Pickwick Lake, began its annual fall foliage tours last Saturday and will continue through mid-November.
Wildy said that on the Trace, October’s near-ideal weather is as big a draw as its fall color, especially for bicyclists and motorcyclists, but added, “We do get a lot of phone calls about the leaves’ turning.”
In mid-October, Trace officials will begin updating a fall foliage webpage (www.nps.gov/natr /planyourvisit/fall-colors.htm).
Harold Little of Little Creek Ranch (www.littlecreek.ms) near Glen also sees an increase in visitors when they can enjoy both blue sky and brilliant woods.
“I do have people specifically call about the colors,” he said. “I have some pretty horseback trails that offer quite a bit of color in the fall. You wouldn’t have to be on horse, but that’s probably the best view.”
State parks in the area reflect the same trend.
“Anytime we have pretty color, we have more people,” said Bill Brekeen, manager of Tishomingo State Park.
“October is one of our busier times of year,” said Tombigbee State Park Manager Donna Hollis. “We pick up dramatically after the weather cools off and the trees start turning.”
Hollis is optimistic about this fall’s prospects.
“It was so dry for so long,” she said. “I hope this rain we’ve had lately is going to help make some brilliant colors.”