A palette of brilliant colors in hand, Mother Nature has begun painting Pennsylvania foliage with autumn awe.
Over the next few weeks, her brush strokes will create clusters of scarlet, yellow, orange, purple and russet that dazzle the eye and soothe the soul.
The best time to take it all in is upon us, said Ed Dix, among whose duties with the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry is to compile weekly data on the state's fall foliage. His most recent report, released Tuesday, indicated that the Laurel Highlands have reached 75 percent of full color with the peak expected between Oct. 10 and 17.
"I would not delay. Go to the Laurel Highlands this weekend because it's going to do nothing but increase between now and Saturday and Sunday. It will be a great trip," said Mr. Dix, a forest program specialist. "The following weekend, just about anywhere in southwestern Pennsylvania will be showing some color."
Currently, the percent of full color across Allegheny, Washington, western Fayette, and western Westmoreland counties is between 30 to 40 percent. Peak color is expected between Oct. 20 to 25, according to Mr. Dix's report.
A dry late summer and bright, sunny autumn days with cool nights in the 40s make for the most spectacular fall foliage. By contrast, cloudy days and warm nights tamp down the brilliance of the colors. The Laurel Highlands are peaking sooner than the rest of the region because of the cooler temperatures in the higher elevations there.
Among the first leaves changing are those of red maples (reds and oranges); sugar maples (red-orange and yellow); birch (golden yellow); ash (yellow with purple highlights); dogwood (maroon); and sumac (scarlet).
Shortly thereafter, the leaves will change on hickory (yellow), white oak (orange and purple), red oak and scarlet oak (self-explanatory), aspen (bright yellow) and beech (coppery red or orange).
Perhaps because many Pennsylvanians who witness fall's foliage fireworks year-in and year-out consider it something of a birthright, they may not realize how unique an experience they have.
Only three regions of the world support deciduous forests that display fall color -- eastern North America; the British Isles and parts of northwestern Europe; northeastern China and northern Japan. In other regions, forests are either tropical or dominated by conifers, according to the Forestry Bureau.
And, Mr. Dix noted, the state's fall foliage season is longer and more varied than anywhere in the world. That's because 134 species of trees are supported by the state's location and varied topography, ranging from sea level to over 3,000 feet in the Laurel Highlands. By contrast, there are 74 species of trees in New England, and most are maples.
Pennsylvania is lucky and distinct in that it is able to foster northern trees such as gray and paper birch, mountain maple and mountain ash as well as southern species such as red oak, sweetbay and umbrella magnolias, sourwood, persimmon and sweetgum, according to the Forestry Bureau. For good measure, the state also is home to Ohio buckeye, bur oak and shingle oak, common to the Mississippi Valley.
"Because of its land area, the right temperature zone and the variety of trees, Pennsylvania is about the best place in the world for fall foliage. From one end of the state to the other during the month of October there are great places to see color," Mr. Dix said.
His favorite place?
"I like to go to state parks with lakes. I like a picnic on a bright October day with a blue sky and crisp air and the colors of the trees reflecting off the lake. It doubles the impact of the scenery," he said.
Michael A. Fuoco: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1968. First Published October 8, 2013 8:00 PM