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In late winter or early spring evergreens can change color
overnight, the vestige of some cold, dry or windy time in the
depths of winter. Like greens cut for holiday decoration, dead
needles remain green for a long time. Then, when live portions of
the plant begin to take up water once more, damaged sections cannot
follow suit and become as brown as last New Year's wreath.
Please note this article deals with
For browned-out broadleaf evergreens such as holly,
see Deciduous dieback.
You can jump to:
Why one plant, not
Evaluating the damage
What you need to know about buds
Damage to wood
Taking in the big picture
Assisting the plant in recovery
This season's examples:
You may see plants in your garden follow these three conifers'
- A prized Hinoki falsecypress (below, left; a dwarf
variety of Chamaecyparis obtusa) gave no sign during
winter that it had been hurt by cold. Then in early spring its side
facing the open sky became patchy brown.
- A weeping red pine (center, below; Pinus densiflora
'Pendula') turned straw colored on its south face one day in March.
The west side remained green, having been protected as it was
gradually and gently engulfed by a shovel-raised bank of powdery
snow. Had that snow bank been made with wet snow or compressed by a
plow, the situation might have been very different -- hard packed
snow is not a good insulator and broken branches would complicate
- A dwarf Alberta spruce (below, right; Picea glauca
'Conica') that was green yesterday is suddenly red-brown on its
most exposed surface (in Earth's northern hemisphere, that's
usually the south-or west facing side).
Why this plant? Could the damage
have been prevented?
Every winter, some evergreens burn like the dwarf Alberta
spruces, red pines and Hinoki falsecypresses in our example. Yet
others of their kind escape damage. (We're often very surprised by what's
hurt, what's not.) Sometimes the saving grace is wind
protection, natural or otherwise, that keeps a site just a few
degrees warmer on the coldest night. Or one plant may have an
older, wider or more fortunate root system that enabled it to take
up more water in fall. Perhaps the air is more moist, year round,
because a property is near a large lake or in a river valley, which
is to the benefit of species such as falsecypress.
Right: Were these yews damaged while others nearby were
spared, because they are at the edge of the larger trees' canopy?
If so, was the exposure to open sky more harmful, or were some
portions of the yews dry because of competition from tree roots
concentrated there at the dripline? We are pretty sure
salt/de-icers were not involved in this far-backyard bed. Beyond
that we can only guess, improve growing conditions and perhaps add
seasonal protection for very special plants.
Genetics can also complicate things when you set out to decipher
winter damage patterns. Closely related plants may react very
differently to environmental stress.
That's clear in this collection (right) of spruces:
blue spruce, dwarf Alberta spruce and dwarf Norway spruce
(right: Picea pungens, P. glauca and P. abies).
As another example of relatives with
tolerance: Hinoki falsecypresses (Chamaecyparis
left) are usually quite sensitive to cold and
It has much tougher cousins, such as Atlantic white
(Chamaecyparis thyoides) and the Sawara
falsecypress (C. pisifera).
Below, left: Chamaecyparis pisifera 'Filifera
Aurea', a gold threadleaf variety. It's one of the winter-tough
Sawara falsecypress clan.
Above, center: Yet genetics can be trumped by environment.
Just a stone's throw from unaffected gold threadleaf Sawaras, a
blue Sawara (C. pisifera 'Boulevard') took a hit, even
though it has not before been damaged in winter.
Above, right: Like most evergreens, the falsecypresses do
drop needles naturally each year. However, an attentive gardener
knows that only old, interior needles should fall in that shed.
This blue Sawara falsecypress tells us winter was tough because
even the newest needles were killed on some branches. (Pruning
will be in order.)
Live, learn, try to have fun!
When winter damage seems random it's probably only because so
many factors can come into play, both natural and man made. It's
the unusual gardener who can know just where the wind gusts a bit
stronger or cold air settles sooner and remains longer to create a
colder- or warmer microclimate. Unless we've done a drainage test
in every part of a property we also don't know where the movement
of air and water through the soil may be just a tad more lively --
there roots might function more effectively to replace water loss.
Similarly, we are often completely unaware of some animals,
insects, pesticides, barbeque grill fumes, pavement sealers and a
thousand other variables whose actions may predispose a plant to
Once we accept the immediate damage or loss,
working through these puzzles is often both engaging and
How bad is the
Needles gone partly or wholly brown will fall off and that may
create some bare spots. For the plant, this means a loss in energy.
However, if the total foliage loss for the plant is less than
one-third, the energy deficit can be made up and the spots may fill
in a season or two.
More often, winter damage creates an aesthetic problem only the
gardener can rate. If the plant has a vigorous growth habit, is in
good health and has plenty of live buds in position to fill a gap,
we might simply wait for natural fill. Perhaps we hasten the
process by training branches to cover the spot or pruning to allow
light to reach and bolster the growth of tiny remaining buds.
Sometimes nothing will satisfy us but to replace the plant.
Right, above: All of the brown needles will eventually drop
off this part of a dwarf Alberta spruce. At first, the only green
we'll see will be from interior needles, and that will be overlaid
by brown twigs.
Right: Yet all the buds on the branch are still alive and
can leaf out if growing conditions are good. That fresh new green
will quickly fill the gap. We pulled allthe
needles from that first cutting to help you visualize the
green to come. Needles will appear not only from each branch tip
but from buds midway along the lower left twig.
Live buds are key -- learn to look
For most needled evergreens, recovery requires not only good
growing conditions but live growth buds -- buds set the previous
year. Buds often survive even when foliage dies since the embryonic
growth inside a bud is less watery than foliage -- less likely to
freeze. That new growing point is also insulated by a resin-filled
Note: Leafy buds may survive cold
that can kill
flower buds or flowers within leafy buds.
See Blooms lost to cold.
Below: Don't let the damage get you down. At left, the
winter damaged dwarf Alberta spruce branch, a sorry sight. Below,
right: The bud we cut open to check for signs of life. The buds
were fine -- moist and green.
Below, left: Two branches from the weeping red pine in our
opening example. We took one branch from the exposed side of the
weeping red pine -- most of its needles have gone brown. The other
branch is from the more protected side of the plant. Both branches
will eventually drop their browned needles.
Below, right: The good new is that both branches have viable tip
Right: A bud from the weeping red pine, cut open to check
for life. Even if all the needles fall in the next few weeks, the
branches will not starve from leaflessness. That's because each bud
contains and will quickly deploy what's visible here: A new branch
(1) and all its needles (2).
When wood dies
Winter may kill wood, too. Scratch to check for life -- live
wood has moist green cambium under the bark. Prune out dead
If its buds die, a branch of pine, spruce, juniper, arborvitae
or falsecypress will almost certainly die. Cut out that
weak wood. Keep only bud-tipped branches.
Below, left: The yew pictured earlier in this article lost
not only its needles but the buds, too.
Below, right: Even without cutting into a bud we know they
are dead by comparing their color and firmness to buds on an
Below, left: We scratch the damaged yew branch to determine
how far we must clip to reach lively wood. The bottom branch of
this pair is a goner. We'll prune out all such wood. 18 inches down
on the limb we begin to find green needles and also green beneath
Below, right: By comparison, the twig of the weeping red pine is
moist and green right to the tip.
Keep your eyes
Damage to ever-greenery may be what you notice first but don't
stop looking there.
Register the burned needles on the falsecypress but
don't quit there. Look at deciduous shrubs and bases of trunks,
too, so you won't overlook other, potentially greater problems.
(Here, 1, 2 and 3 mark deer-, rabbit- and vole damage.
Assist a recovering plant
Water and light are the most important factor in recovery. Do
not allow the root zone of a recovering plant to go dry, and never
let it become soggy.
Do what you can to let more light reach in to speed bud growth
and strengthen interior growth. Prune overhead as necessary to
increase light. Sweep the plant gently or hose it off to dislodge
dead needles. Clip out some of the weaker twigs to reduce the shade
they cast on deeper buds, and to redirect energy from those twigs
to stronger growth.
You might prune the damaged plant to reshape it or increase its
density, too. Whenever there are live buds on a branch loaded with
brown needles, you can wait a bit before making pruning
See Deciding what to cut.
Once new growth begins, fertilize per a soil test or use a
balanced fertilizer such as 4-4-4 or 10-10-10. Visit the plant
regularly to head off any insect or pest problems.
About troubled broadleaf evergreens
We deal separately with needled evergreens and broadleaf
evergreens. That's because most needled evergreens cannot
regenerate from bud-less wood, and all pruning strategies, remedial
and routine, must keep that in mind.
Yew (Taxus species) is an exception. It has needle-like
foliage but is able to sprout from bare wood even when
stumped to the ground.
Broadleaf evergreens can be pruned quite differently than needle
evergreens because the broadleaf species will regenerate from bare
wood. So in assessing winter damage, we treat them like deciduous
shrubs. If you are assessing the damage on an azalea,
Rhododendron, holly, Pieris, boxwood,
see Deciduous dieback.
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