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The art (and science) of anticipating autumn

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Autumn beech leaves

Leaf-peeping, the pastime of enjoying autumn foliage brings in one billion dollars each year to New England. Whilst the US state may lead the way in this tourism trade, Forestry Commission England has many worthy competitors, including The National Arboretum at Westonbirt whose maples attract worldwide acclaim.

But why do leaves change colour? What makes a maple leaf turn fiery red, a beech become golden or an ironwood transform through a rainbow of colours to deep plum purple?

Simon Toomer, the Forestry Commission’s Director at Westonbirt Arboretum, explains the science behind changing leaf colour:

"Different chemicals in leaves control the colours we see. During summer the leaves are packed with green chlorophyll, which harnesses energy from sunlight to combine water and CO2 to create sugars (plant food).

"However, once the tree shuts down as it prepares for winter, the chlorophyll breaks down and other coloured chemicals take over. Carotenoids (which give carrots their colour), anthocyanins and tannins give the instantly recognisable colours of autumn, making leaves appear yellow, red and gold.

“Because of the less than glorious summer we have experienced in the UK this year, we expect to see prolonged autumn colour well into November due to the mild, damp weather conditions and no shortage of water.”

With a number of fantastic forest sites displaying the sensory delights of autumn, Forestry Commission England has named its top ten places to visit. From the fireworks of autumn leaves at Westonbirt Arboretum to the amazing view from the Tree Top Way at Salcey Forest, we have something for everyone this autumn. Top leaf-peeping spots include:

  1. Westonbirt, The National Arboretum in Gloucestershire
  2. Friston Forest in East Sussex
  3. Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent
  4. The Wye Valley in the Forest of Dean
  5. Salcey Forest, near Northampton
  6. Maulden Woods in Bedfordshire
  7. Grizedale Forest, North West England
  8. Castle Neroche near Taunton, Somerset
  9. Bolderwood, New Forest
  10. Mendip sites

This year, members of the public can also follow how quickly our woodlands are changing colour and help us keep this up to date. Using the Forestry Commission’s interactive online autumn colour map it’s easy to find the best colour near you, as each wood is rated from green to golden.

And join in by sharing your photos of autumnal colours near to you on our facebook page - Forestry Commission Woods and Forests!

Notes to editor

  1. Simon Toomer has worked at the Forestry Commission’s Westonbirt Arboretum for more than 12 years and was appointed Arboretum Director in 2009.  He trained in environmental biology and forestry.
  2. The Forestry Commission is the government department responsible for protecting, expanding and promoting the sustainable management of woods and forests and increasing their value to society and the environment.  Further information can be found at
  3. Leaf peeping is an informal term, commonly used in the United States, for people who travel to view and photograph the fall foliage in areas where foliage changes colours, particularly New England.

Media contact:
Rebecca Turner  0117 906 6030