Beverly Collins is getting into the prognostication business this fall, but she won’t be trying to predict the outcome of college football games. The focus of her attention will be the fall leaf color that brings thousands of visitors to the mountains of Western North Carolina each year.
Collins, a professor in Western Carolina University’s Department of Biology, is taking over the duties as WCU’s official soothsayer for fall foliage from her colleague in the department, associate professor Kathy Mathews, who had been producing the forecast since 2005. Before Mathews, the job was handled by now-retired biology professor J. Dan Pittillo for many years.
By late summer each year, WCU’s Office of Communications and Public Relations begins to receive inquiries from the media about the leaf color prediction, and the official forecast is distributed to media outlets throughout Western North Carolina, and also provided to other media representatives across the Southeast who contact the office, said Bill Studenc, office director. Many newspapers and TV stations traditionally produce a news story or broadcast report about the potential for having a good color year, and they know who to call, Studenc said.
Also, as the color season progresses each fall, WCU’s official predictor usually receives an onslaught of calls from print, TV and radio reporters who want to talk about the topic on the phone or conduct an interview on camera.
That adds up to some pressure for whomever is predicting what Mother Nature will come up with as she paints the mountains with color, said Collins, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in botany at Rutgers University. “From a scientific perspective, as a botanist and ecologist, I understand how many factors contribute to plant responses, such as leaf color change, and how variable and unpredictable the factors, such as weather, are,” she said. “So, I worry about how accurately I can forecast when leaves will change color, and how bright the colors will be.”
In preparation for the upcoming release of her own forecast, Collins said she has conferred with both Pittillo and Mathews about the science and observation involved in leaf forecasting.
Reflecting back on her years in the leaf predictor driver’s seat, Mathews said the most stressful part of the situation for her was “feeling like the quality of people’s vacations depended on my forecast, and also that tourism in Western North Carolina could be harmed by a poor forecast.” Mathews said she strived to make an honest prediction despite the pressure.
“There are so many different factors that might affect fall color change, not to mention that everyone’s experience is subjective,” she said. “In all my years doing the forecast, I only remember one year when I thought the color was truly spectacular – 2006. In any case, I felt like things got really crazy when I got a call from a Hollywood film agent who was scouting locations for filming in this area. That really swelled my sense of importance.”
Collins’ full prediction for this fall will be posted on the WCU news site by Friday, Aug. 26. In the meantime, she said she is going out on a limb, so to speak, and predicting the leaf color will reach its peak on the WCU campus during the third week of October.
By Randall Holcombe