Autumn leaves – the chemistry behind the colour

As Autumn pushes onwards the leaves on the trees have lost their green colour and have allowed the vibrant hues of autumn to show through. Although this change may initially seem a simple one, the vivid colours are a result of a range of chemical compounds.

A green leaf is green because of the presence of a pigment known as chlorophyll, which is inside an organelle called a chloroplast. When they are abundant in the leaf’s cells, as they are during the growing season, the chlorophylls’ green colour dominates and masks out the colours of any other pigments that may be present in the leaf. Thus the leaves of summer are characteristically green.

As summer fades, so too does the amount of light, and thus chlorophyll production slows  The existing chlorophyll decomposes. As a result of this, other compounds present in the leaves can come to the fore, and affect the perceived colouration as shown in the infographic below featured on the CompoundInterest website.  Click on the link below for a larger picture.

Autumn Leaves-click to enlarge
Carotenoids are present in leaves the whole year round, but their orange-yellow colours are usually masked by green chlorophyll.  Carotenoids provide colourations of yellow, brown, orange, and the many hues in between.

The reds, the purples, and their blended combinations that decorate autumn foliage come from another group of pigments in the cells called anthocyanins. Unlike the carotenoids, these pigments are not present in the leaf throughout the growing season, but are actively produced towards the end of summer.   They develop in late summer in the sap of the cells of the leaf, and this development is the result of complex interactions of many influences — both inside and outside the plant. Their formation depends on the breakdown of sugars in the presence of bright light as the level of phosphate in the leaf is reduced.

The brown colour of leaves is not the result of a pigment, but rather cell walls, which may be evident when no colouring pigment is visible.

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Posted on October 31, 2014, in Useful Information. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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