SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) – The early fall leaves sprouting up in some parts of KELOLAND may seem like a welcome surprise for some after the extremely hot summer, but the premature color change is actually an indicator of stress and drought for trees, which could mean less vibrant, fall colors in the future. 

John Ball, an Extension forestry specialist with South Dakota State University, said South Dakota has had a really dry fall and long winter the past two years, which is a recipe for unhealthy trees in the spring.

A tree near the Spencer Park bike trail in September 2023 and August 2023.

“This spring, I was getting lots of calls from people with maple trees and birch trees that were either leafing out very slowly on top or the top one-third or half the tree was almost completely dead,” he said. 

Due to poor precipitation and high temperatures this summer, the leaves weren’t able to go through the normal color-changing patterns so they aren’t producing chlorophyll and turning colors sooner than normal. 

Ball said leaves usually start changing color when the days shorten and temperatures at night cool off with the occasional frost. The Smoky Mountains Fall Foliage Prediction map for 2023 says leaves should start changing in southern South Dakota in October, but Ball noticed leaves starting to change in late July.

“At this point, none of that is good,” Ball said. 

The premature color change for the leaves has caused the tops of trees to dry out and shed their leaves permanently.  

“Since we’re seeing the same conditions this year, we may see damage on those same trees or we may see trees damaged that were unaffected by this last year,” Ball said. 

One way to keep trees as healthy as possible is by watering them every week. Sprinklers may not be enough if a tree is over 25 feet tall. Ball said that if you stick a screwdriver into the ground six inches and it comes up wet all the way through, then that is an adequate amount of water. 

“You want to make sure [the trees] go into winter as healthy as possible, which means water them,” Ball said. 

The good news though, people won’t have to wait long for the leaves to turn colors in a natural, safe way. 

“If they start turning in another two weeks, I’d call that normal. If they’re turning right now, it’s not.”

The South Dakota Game Fish and Parks has a fall foliage tracker for the state parks. To see where the fall leaves are popping up in the state or to report a foliage color status, visit their website.