Science’s beauty on display

By James O’Donoghue, Staff Writer

As you drive through a shower of leaves whipped by the wind, instead of shouting “Ooh!” and “Ah!” you can say, “What a nice hue of anthocyanins.” After saying something like that, you’ll get a few looks and you’ll need to explain further. You can go into detail, much like this…

Hardwood trees in late summer begin to board up the windows for winter. The base of a leaf gradually closes, stemming the flow of minerals and fluids. The human body has a similar method. When the body loses too much heat, it will divert blood flow from the extremities to the vital core. It’s trying to save itself, just as a tree is during the winter.

As fluid is cut off from the tree’s extremities, the chlorophyll inside the cells breaks down. Chlorophyll reflects green light, which makes leaves green. Once the green diva has a sore throat, the stand-ins take the stage.

The first one to sing is carotenoid, an organic pigment present in the cell. It gives leaves their yellow, orange and brown colors. You can see it in the cottonwood trees and even in egg yolks and carrots.

Another pigment is produced when fall comes. Anthocyanins flourish with colors of red and purple. Poison ivy uses this pigment with great effect to show off its berries for the birds to pluck and spread. It also makes strawberries red and plums purple. Canyon maples seem to favor this color.

You might have noticed the colors seem brighter in the Zion Canyon area. The brightness is a matter of temperature and light. Bright, clear and cool days with nights that are cold but not freezing will give you the brightest colors.

There is still a measure of magic behind the science. There is no definite answer yet as to why the trees produce another pigment. There are theories that describe it as sunscreen or a flash of anger to ward off tree-dwelling insects. Those who like mystery can relax8212;there is still sleight of hand on nature’s stage.

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