Already, fall color is drawing more people to the Natchez Trace Parkway - one of Northeast Mississippi's favorite leaf-peeping venues.
"We'll notice a definite uptick in visitors at the visitor center this time of year," said Terry Wildy, supervisory park ranger. "We had 178 [Friday], and that's probably at least a 30 percent jump.
"What we're seeing, right now, are the dogwoods turning a purply-red color," she said. "Maples can have those really bright reds and oranges and yellows; they're just starting."
Trace officials encourage the visitors with a fall color link (www.nps.gov/natr/plan yourvisit/fall-colors.htm).
In years past Tishomingo County hosted a fall-color cruise on Pickwick Lake, but when the boat changed owners that option disappeared. The Pickwick Belle, however, offers cruises on its paddlewheeler (complete with observation deck on top) from Tennessee's Pickwick Landing State Park.
"The fall foliage cruises are our most popular of the whole year," said Tanya Irwin, marketing director for the Pickwick Belle. "We have two-hour, white-tablecloth lunch cruises and 90-minute sightseeing cruises on our paddlewheel riverboat." Prices, she added, range from about $10 to $33.
Every fall different
Each year, shorter days trigger trees to prepare for winter. When they slow down photosynthesis - the production of the chlorophyll that keeps them green - other chemicals that have been there all along become visible. Anthocyanins create the red hues, while carotenoids produce yellow.
As beautiful as fall can be here, autumns in the Mid-South rarely have the picture-postcard vistas for which northern states are famous.
Perhaps the biggest reason is the species difference. Some sources assert that about 10 percent of trees in temperature zones produce anthocyanins, while in parts of New England, it's more like 70 percent.
"In the Great Lakes and New England, there's much more brilliant fall color," said Andy Londo, extension professor of forestry at Mississippi State University, noting the maples, birches and poplars that dominate hardwood forests in those regions. "Here we have a lot of oaks: If oaks turn red at all, you're doing well, but they quickly move to brown."
The species mix, topography and length of season all make for the difference. Northern regions' fewer but brighter species are often splayed en masse across whole hillsides while the Southern landscape has a far greater variety of trees, only some of which show much color.
In our pine- and oak-dominant forests, the showiest trees tend to be individuals or small groups.
"Cottonwood, sweetgum, and the gingkos we see planted in our towns and yellow poplar are some of the most colorful species in Mississippi, turning a bright yellow," Londo said. "Dogwoods, on the other hand, turn a purplish red, and red maples will turn a bright, vivid red. Oaks turn red, brown or russet while hickories turn a golden bronze."
Right now, wildflowers - perennial sunflowers and several species of goldenrod, particularly - add their own charm to the Northeast Mississippi countryside. It's hard to appreciate at 55 miles per hour, but for hikers and bikers, even poison ivy - safely viewed from several feet away - can offer a splash of brilliant red.
Abundant summer rainfall and cool but above-freezing days and nights create the best conditions for autumnal splendor. This year, a dry summer and fall has stressed trees, pushing some into early leaf shed. Others may not have their normal brilliance.
"Last year we had a pretty color show, but we had good rainfall last summer," Londo said. "I don't expect us to have quite as nice a fall this year."
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or firstname.lastname@example.org.