Out of the misery of a hot and dry summer may come an extra-lovely autumn in the Southern highlands.
The region's experts in forestry and ecology predict the long dry spell will produce spectacular leaf colors from the humped-back ridges of northern Georgia to the peaks of the Tennessee Smokies.Foliage likely will peak one to 10 days earlier than the typical late October color zenith, they say.
``When we have drought, we have good color,' explained botanist Dan Pittillo of Western Carolina University near Sylva.
One of the deans of Southern Appalachian ecology, Pittillo has seen 32 autumns in the southwestern corner of North Carolina, about 30 miles from the Georgia line.
``Overall, this will be a pretty fall, especially at the high-to-mid elevations,' agreed Jim Petranka, associate professor of biology at UNC Asheville. ``In the valleys the color may not be as good. The valleys have really had extended drought, and the trees are already losing their leaves.'
Among the temperate world's most diverse forests, the southern Blue Ridge is home to 150 tree species, more than on the entire continent of Europe. This diversity helps explain why no two years are exactly the same for fall color.
One year, the yellow-gold of the poplars and orange of the maples may be intense, and in others it is the crimson of the oaks and orange of the gum trees that stand out. Take last year: The colors on average were not as bright as normal, but the duration of the season was remarkable, with brilliant hues lingering almost until Thanksgiving.