BOSTON - New England's fall foliage forecast is looking so fine it's enough to make a maple leaf blush.
For the first time in several years, little has conspired against a truly glorious autumn. There's no more drought, the summer has been mild and the leaves - largely spared by marauding gypsy moth caterpillars - look healthy.
Translation: A pretty great season for leaf peeping seems to be shaping up.
“It's the most optimistic forecast I've had in a couple of years,” said Jim Salge, who tracks the region's annual autumn pageant for Yankee Magazine.
“The biggest thing that can go wrong with foliage is a really wet couple of weeks leading up,” Salge cautioned. “We'll really need that typical fall weather in New England - warm, sunny days and cool, crisp nights - to make it pop. But we've had a great setup.”
A few recent autumns disappointed because they were preceded by too much or too little summer rainfall, muting the colors. Last fall was a bust in parts of eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut after hungry caterpillars defoliated hundreds of thousands of acres of already drought-stricken woodlands.
But this year, Yankee says in a forecast being released Friday, the stage is set for a particularly “strong and vibrant” display. Salge didn't study New York, New Jersey or other corners of the Northeast, but botanists say those states theoretically should be in for a nice show, too, since they tend to experience similar weather.
Snowfall and snowmelt replenished drought-parched forests during winter and early spring.
“Since spring, the weather in New England has been fairly stable. There have been no long stretches of unbearable heat, nor have temperatures been below average. Rainfall has been adequate but not extreme,” it predicts.
“The setup looks good overall for New England's fall foliage display this year. The forest appears generally healthy and leaf development has been normal. The upshot: In New England, normal fall colors are expected to be spectacular.”
Jeff Folger, a leading foliage expert from Salem, Massachusetts, mostly concurs, though he worries about the fallout from a fungus that thrived during the very moist spring. It affects maples and other species, mottling the leaves and in some instances even causing them to drop early.
Gypsy moth caterpillars also did serious damage in parts of Rhode Island and around the Quabbin Reservoir in west-central Massachusetts. Chomped trees sprouted new leaves, but that generally means less-vibrant colors in badly hit areas come fall.
And the National Weather Service says it's too early to predict in fickle New England whether September conditions will favor foliage. Its models foresee normal rainfall and above normal temperatures, which may or may not produce those desirable crisp nights.
Even so, “I think we're looking pretty good,” Folger said, predicting that color may peak in some areas in the last week of September rather than the more typical first week of October.
“Happy leaves stay on the trees longer,” he said. “And with no more drought, these are happy leaves.”