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What trees change color first in the fall?

As the days get shorter and the temperatures begin to drop in the fall, deciduous trees start the process of going dormant for the winter. This process causes the leaves to change color from green to various hues of yellow, orange, red, and brown before falling off the trees. But what trees initiate this colorful display first?

Why Leaves Change Color

Leaves contain chlorophyll, which gives them their green color during the growing season. The chlorophyll helps capture sunlight and convert it into energy through photosynthesis. In the fall, due to changes in the length of daylight and temperatures, the leaves stop their food-making process. The chlorophyll breaks down and the green color disappears. This allows the other pigments present in the leaves to become visible – carotenoids (yellows and oranges) and anthocyanins (reds and purples). These pigments were present all along, but the green chlorophyll overwhelmed them during the growing season.

The Process of Leaf Color Change

The actual timing and sequence of fall color change depends on many factors, both environmental and genetic. But in general, there are four major stages of autumn leaf color change:

  1. Chlorophyll starts to break down – leaves may turn a paler green color.
  2. Carotenoids become visible – leaves take on yellow and orange hues.
  3. Anthocyanins form – adding red and purple tones.
  4. Leaves drop from the tree and only dead tissue remains – brownish colors prevail.

Cooler night temperatures combined with bright, sunny fall days encourage the buildup and visibility of the fall anthocyanin pigments. The carotenoids are present in the leaf throughout the growing season but are masked by the green chlorophyll. As the chlorophyll breaks down, the yellow and orange colors start to become visible.

What Trees Change Color First?

So when does this color change begin? What trees initiate the fall foliage display in forests and landscapes across North America? Here is a look at some of the first trees to herald the autumn season:


Maple trees (Acer species) are among the earliest to display their fall foliage. Red maple (A. rubrum) and sugar maple (A. saccharum) are popular landscape trees appreciated for their brilliant red and orange colors. Some maple tree leaves turn yellow or have mottled color combinations. Japanese maple (A. palmatum) is another early changing small tree.


The leaves of dogwood trees (Cornus species) often take on purplish-red hues in early fall. Kousa dogwood (C. kousa) and pagoda dogwood (C. alternifolia) are noted for their reddish fall color. Other dogwood species may turn deep scarlet or purple-red.


Another early color-changer is the sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua). This native tree in eastern North America is easily recognized in fall by its star-shaped leaves. Sweetgum foliage turns multiple shades including yellow, purple, red and orange – sometimes on the same branch.


Sourwood or sorrel tree (Oxydendrum arboreum) is a small deciduous tree found in eastern forests. Sourwood leaves turn vibrant red and are among the earliest to change color in woodland areas. Groups of sourwood trees on mountainsides signal the onset of fall.


Sumac is a large group of shrubs and small trees. Common sumac species like staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) and smooth sumac (R. glabra) are very early transitioning into stunning crimson foliage. Sumacs grow in open fields, along roadsides and woodland edges across much of North America.

Mid-Season Color Changes

As autumn progresses, many other deciduous trees join the foliage display. Here are some of the most colorful mid-season leaf changers:


Quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and bigtooth aspen (P. grandidentata) shine with bright golden fall color. Aspen groves shimmering in the breeze are a sight to behold. These fast-growing trees cover mountainsides and adaptable aspen will grow in poor soils.


Paper birch (Betula papyrifera) is a highlight of the autumn forest with its golden yellow foliage. The peeling white bark provides great contrast. Other yellow birch species include gray birch (B. populifolia) and river birch (B. nigra).


Blackgum or black tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica) is a native wetland tree renowned for its fall color display ranging from yellow to deep scarlet. Blackgum grows in eastern North America and often colors up earlier than surrounding trees.


The mighty oak tree family (Quercus species) contains many fall favorites. Red oak (Q. rubra), black oak (Q. velutina), pin oak (Q. palustris) and scarlet oak (Q. coccinea) all turn reddish. White oak (Q. alba) and swamp white oak (Q. bicolor) turn purple-red or russet. Bur oak (Q. macrocarpa) displays yellow to brown fall leaves.

Late Season Foliage

A few tree species hold onto their green leaves late into fall before transforming color. These tardy leaf changers provide late season interest:


American beech (Fagus grandifolia) and European beech (F. sylvatica) trees hold their green summer foliage well into fall. Eventual autumn hues range from yellow to orange-brown.

Osage Orange

Osage orange (Maclura pomifera) is a small-growing native tree with late season yellow color. Its fruit is used in making decorative floral arrangements.


Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is another slow leaf changer, eventually turning bright golden yellow. This unique tree with fan-shaped leaves can live for centuries.


Conifers like pines (Pinus), firs (Abies), spruces (Picea) and cedars (Cedrus) remain green year-round. Their permanent foliage provides structure during winter. But larch or tamarack (Larix laricina) is a deciduous conifer that turns golden yellow in fall before shedding its needles.

Why Does Fall Foliage Change at Different Times?

A number of environmental factors influence when deciduous trees transition into their autumn colors:

  • Sunlight – Shorter days with less sunlight initiate the color change process.
  • Temperature – Cooler fall nights combined with warm sunny days intensify the autumn leaf colors.
  • Rainfall – Adequate moisture brings about the best color display.
  • Soil fertility – Trees growing in lean soils tend to color up earlier.
  • Tree genetics – Some trees are programmed genetically to change earlier than others.

The mix of tree species present will also determine the sequence of color changes across any particular landscape as some trees transition earlier than others.

Tree Type Fall Color Timing
Maples Early
Dogwoods Early
Sweetgums Early
Sourwood Early
Sumac Early
Aspens Mid-season
Birches Mid-season
Blackgum Mid-season
Oaks Mid-season
Beech Late
Osage Orange Late
Ginkgo Late


Predicting peak fall foliage conditions can be tricky, but you can expect the sequence of color change to follow fairly predictable patterns each year. Maples, dogwoods, sweetgums, sourwoods and sumacs are often the first trees to display their autumn foliage. Oaks, birches, aspens and blackgum create breathtaking color in the middle of fall. Beech, ginkgo, and osage orange are late season treats. Understanding what trees change first can help you time your autumn trips to enjoy peak fall vistas.