Are your evergreens looking yellow or brown? This might be why…

Extreme temperature changes over short periods of time during winter months can leave evergreen trees looking a little yellow and sad. There are a number of different reasons an evergreen tree might be turning yellow/brown and/or dropping needles this time of year. Sometimes it’s perfectly healthy, other times it’s not. How do you tell the difference, and what should you do? Here’s a few tips:

This pine is showing needle cast. Notice the brown needles are lower on the branch while the healthy green needles are closer to the tip.

This pine is showing needle cast. Notice the brown needles are lower on the branch while the healthy green needles are closer to the tip.

Needle Cast: If your conifer (pine, spruce, fir, or juniper) is dropping needles, it may be a perfectly normal and healthy occurrence. If the needles that are dropping are only on the interior part of the tree while the needles toward the ends of the branches are still flexible, green, and firmly attached, then your tree is going through a process called “needle cast.” This process is kind of like deciduous trees casting off their leaves every fall – the needles deepest inside the tree no longer receive much in the way of sunlight as they are shaded by the newer exterior needles, so the tree drops them. This is totally normal and you should not be alarmed.

Sun Scald: If the needles on one side of the tree are showing yellow or brown coloration, but the other side of the tree still looks healthy, it could be suffering from sun scald. The exceptionally dry winter air combined with low soil moisture and intense sun causes the needles to dry out. The damage is often only present on the most exposed parts of the tree where prevailing winds or southern sun can have the greatest impact. Often, only the tip of the needle will be discolored while the base of the needle remains green.

Some of this damage may be inevitable, depending on the location of the tree, but it can be mitigated by good winter watering (click here for more on winter watering). For particularly sensitive evergreens like boxwoods, arborvitae, and oriental spruce, to name a few, a permeable fabric like burlap can be used to wrap the plants, providing a little extra protection. Trees can also be treated with Wilt-Pruf, a product designed to give evergreen plants an added layer of protection on their needles and leaves. Generally, this type of damage is only short-term. Only in extreme cases do we start to worry about the overall health of the tree.

Freeze Damage: If your tree is dropping needles or yellowing/browning uniformly around the entire plant, there’s a chance the recent deep freeze caused such a shock to your tree that the needles were damaged.

Fort Collins Weather Nov. 2-15, 2014

Extended periods of warm weather followed by rapid temperature drops is the perfect formula for evergreen freeze damage.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is present on the tips of branches while the interior needles remain green.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is present on the tips of branches while the interior needles remain green.

When plants go through such a rapid change in temperature, they don’t have time to undergo the physiological changes that help them tolerate the cold. Cell walls can rupture when they freeze and the dry air can cause damage more easily than would otherwise be the case. In instances like this, the damage will be most prominent on the outer parts of the branches, causing the tips to discolor and lose needles while inner needles that weren’t as exposed during the freeze remain green.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is not limited to just one side of the tree.

Freeze damage on a Southwestern White Pine. Note the damage is not limited to just one side of the tree.

In these cases, the only thing to do is wait and see. It is possible that in the spring, the buds that have already formed on the tips of those branches will still produce a new candle (the  growth from which new needles emerge). We encourage you to wait to prune until you are certain a branch has died, as cutting a branch that has a healthy bud on it will result in no growth next season. You can gently pinch the buds on damaged branches to find out if they’re still healthy – a firm bud is a healthy one, while a dried out dead bud will crumble between your finger tips. In this case, as with sun scald, the best treatment is a good deep watering 2 times a month through the winter when possible.

Come spring, even if no new growth emerges, if the remaining needles are still green, you’ve still got a healthy tree. Prune away the dead branches to expose the inner needles to light, give your tree a feeding with Jirdon Tree & Shrub fertilizer, and be sure to tell your tree how much it means to you and how happy you are that it’s still alive!

57 Responses to “Are your evergreens looking yellow or brown? This might be why…”

  1. Tonja says:

    What about evergreen shrubs and plants (Holly etc)? We have a brand new xeriscape. Is it bad to water with it so cold or should we? Thank you in advance.

    • jesse says:

      The same problems and care hold true for evergreen shrubs and plants. In fact, broadleaf evergreens like holly and euonymus are more prone to problems like sun scald because of the larger surface area of their leaves as compared to the needle on a conifer.

      It is better to water before the ground freezes if at all possible (right now is a great time since the weather is so warm). Trees, shrubs, and plants would much rather enter a hard freeze with water on their roots than sitting in dry soil. We recommend watering two times per month for newly planted landscape plants, as well as broadleaf evergreens, and at least once a month for established and deciduous landscape plants.

      Jesse

  2. Sherry A says:

    I need help selecting plants that will grow / thrive when planted under very large pine trees
    Thanks, Sherry
    sherrya54@yahoo.com

    • jesse says:

      Hi Sherry,

      The areas below pine trees tend to be shaded and dry. Not something a lot of plants enjoy, but luckily there are a few good choices for that type of situation.

      Manzanita is a nice broadleaf evergreen plant that thrives in dry shade, and in fact, you’ll find it growing in our own pine forests here in Colorado. Barrenwort and wild ginger are great perennial selections for dry shade as well.

      If you can add a little water to the situation, hostas, grape holly, and wintercreeper all do well.

      Jesse

  3. steve says:

    Thanks- The south side of my 2 year old pine is yellowed this spring summer. Had a cold snowy winter in NE with lots of wind. Hope it recovers, ill water it next winter.

    • jesse says:

      Steve,

      I’d imagine if it’s just yellowed on one side it should make a good recovery over the next few years. Definitely keep up on that winter watering – it will help it recover this year, and if you keep it up in future years it can help prevent future winter desiccation issues.

  4. Mike Amello says:

    Pine saplings and smaller pines under the larger pines on the border of my property here in southeast North Carolina in Brunswick County at first turned yellow and now all brown and I do not think this is part of needle casting. A few weeks ago I spread some Holly Tone under the drip lines of the larger pine trees and applied some Miracle Grow Pine Tree fertilizing spikes in the ground also to help the growth. Is it possible that I may have burned the younger saplings and killed them? If so how do I undo the fertilizing I applied and will the heavy rain over the next few days that is forecast wash away the problem, if you feel it is the fertilizing that is the culprit.

    Thank you

    • jesse says:

      If it’s needle cast, it will only be the older needles on the interior of the tree, not the younger needles out towards the tips of branches. It is possible you burned and damaged/killed the trees with excess fertilizer – it is a good rule of thumb to only apply one type of fertilizer at a time unless the packing specifically states that it can be used at the same time as other fertilizers. If you’ve got a good rain coming, yes, that can help dilute the fertilizer and flush excess out of the soil. As to whether the fertilizer is actually the culprit, it’s hard to say. Yellow and brown needles on a pine are similar to a headache in a person. A headache could be caused by dehydration, a hangover, low blood sugar, a migraine, a blow to the head, any number of things, but the symptom is the same for all of them – a headache. Likewise, there is a myriad of causes for yellowing needles, so it’s challenging to say with certainty what caused them, especially over the internet. I would take a sample of a branch exhibiting the yellowed and brown needles to your local garden center or university extension office and see if they can give you a more definitive answer.
      Best of luck!
      Jesse

  5. Rosemary says:

    I have a row of 10 pine trees and four of the trees on the North end have a slight yellow cast (the whole tree)? All of the others are a pretty deep green.

  6. Rosemary says:

    I’ve noticed the trees that are yellow are smaller in size, they are all three years old, planted same time.

    • jesse says:

      A few questions to make sure I’m understanding properly:
      Are all 10 trees the same age, or just the ones that are yellowing?
      Are the 4 that are yellowing all next to one another, or are they separated by healthy-looking trees?
      Do you provide any fertilizer on any kind of a regular basis?
      What are your watering habits for this row of trees?

      Jesse

  7. Rosemary says:

    All ten trees are the same age. The four are all in a row, 20 feet apart, during summer heat I try to water once a month,on all of the trees. I have not used any kind of fertilizer for over a year.

    • jesse says:

      If the four affected trees are all in a row, the most likely cause is a nutrient/soil issue. I would monitor the situation through the winter (there’s not much to be done until spring), and apply a dose of Jirdon Tree & Shrub fertilizer in the spring once the ground has thawed. Hopefully, the new growth that pushes out in spring benefits from the additional nutrients and comes out a nice rich green. If that resolves the issue, it may be possible that the soil in that section of your tree row is a little nutrient poor and ongoing fertilizer applications may be necessary into the future. If that doesn’t fix the yellowing, I’d encourage you to bring some samples in so we can look more closely and see if we can identify a different cause for the discoloration.

  8. Rosemary says:

    Thank you,I will surely try that and will let you know the results.

  9. Joy Dollar says:

    I have an evergreen at the front of my house. Beautiful shape and now is growing inches every year. Outside limbs look great, but inner branches are brown. They have been this way from time of purchase, probably eight years ago, and every year there are more brown but also more green, healthy branches. What can I do for this tree to help it? I could send pics if I knew how to get them to you….thanks for any help you can give

    • Joy Dollar says:

      Forgot….I live in NE Alabama

    • jesse says:

      Evergreens naturally die off on their interior as the exterior of their canopy grows. Needles are basically the leaves of an evergreen, meaning their primary purpose is photosynthesis. As the exterior of the tree expands, it shades out the interior. The tree casts off the interior needles as they no longer receive enough light to perform photosynthesis. Sounds to me like your tree is healthy and doing what trees do!

      • Joy Dollar says:

        Thank you….I’m still not sure it is….only because the inner leaves(needles) are so exposed, only the very ends of the branches are green. What would you recommend as food for it? I really wish I could send you some pics. I haven’t watered it this winter because we have had so much rain. I would like to treat it special because it really is a pretty shaped tree. Thanks again

        • jesse says:

          Feel free to email us pictures: staff@fortcollinsnursery.com. Proper diagnosis from a photo can be tricky though. I would also recommend taking your diagnosis questions to somebody local, as there may be issues you may face in Alabama that I am unfamiliar with as I am in Colorado. I recommend a low nitrogen fertilizer, something that is specifically designated for trees and shrubs. I’m not sure what is available in the Alabama market, but if you go to an independent local garden center they should be able to help you. Hope that helps!

  10. Rosella Thompson says:

    I have arborvitae trees about 8years old and were very healthy until late last summer when they started turning brown all 13 of them. Had a tree specialist look at them & they couldn’t tell me what the problem was. I noticed during the summer they had a lot spider webs on them could spider mites do this?

    • jesse says:

      It could be spider mites if you’re seeing lots of webbing and no apparent spiders. Hard to say without seeing a sample in person though. If you want to be on the safe side, I’d recommend a treatment with Fertilome Triple Action, which is a great miticide. If the problem persists, clip off a small piece that has some webbing on it and bring it so we can examine it and hopefully help solve the issue once and for all!

  11. Joy Dollar says:

    Thank you so much!!!

  12. Nancy Austin says:

    We have about 70 blue spruce that we planted 10 to 12 years ago for a wind brea. They have grown but slowly. The ground is gravelly so it drains well. We have fertilized snd they have looked good until now. They are turning yellow and some are red. We had a very mild winter with not much snow. I have some pictures that I would love to send so you could see what I am talking about. Can you help?

    • jesse says:

      My guess is that they suffered from too dry a condition this winter. If they are in well-drained soil and you had a mild warmer than normal winter with below average moisture, evergreens will be the first plants to show negative symptoms. It is important to water evergreens, including spruce, throughout the winter, maybe twice a month in your case with such well-drained soil. Going forward, I would visit your local garden center and look for a low nitrogen tree and shrub fertilizer. The brand I like is Jirdons, but I don’t know if that’s available in NY. Keep them well watered and hopefully they’ll bounce back. If there’s a pest problem, which is always a possibility, that would be best diagnosed by someone more familiar with your local environment. You might seek out a local extension service or a reputable garden center nearby. Pests are often too location-specific for my Colorado knowledge to do you much good!

  13. Nancy Austin says:

    forgot to tell you, we live in Central NY

  14. Nancy Austin says:

    They are planted about 6 feet apart and have grown erratically . They are anywhere from 2′ to 6′ tall.

  15. Julie Day says:

    We have a 4 x 5.5′ Japanese Juniper. It has been very healthy for 5 years. Suddenly this spring it has started to turn yellow at the top and through out and on the inside, it also has several small branches that are all yellow. We did plant some sedum and other small plants above the grade added some water runoff to the Juniper. Could over-watering last summer/fall be the cause? We added some sedum/etc with spray heads above the juniper’s grade. Although, when we dig down now, it appears to be just right, not too wet and not too dry.? Is there anything else that could be the cause? Also, is there anything we can do to help it survive? Thank you very much, Julie

    • jesse says:

      Unfortunately yellowing branches in plants is similar to a headache in people – it is a symptom that can be caused by many various causes.

      It is certainly possible that overwatering could cause the yellowing. If this were the case, the symptoms would first appear on lower branches and from the interior of the plant, moving upwards and outwards as it becomes more severe.

      Unfortunately, without laying eyes on a sample, an accurate diagnosis is nearly impossible. If you’re in the Fort Collins area, you can bring a sample of the yellowed branch in for us to take a look. If not, I recommend taking it by your local garden center or extension office – they may be able to provide more precise information.

  16. Julius Slaa says:

    What are the causes of seedlings of Pinus carribaea at the tree nursery to change from green to yellowish in colour?

    • jesse says:

      Unfortunately I’m pretty unfamiliar with pinus carribaea as it does not grow in our region of the world. In general, yellowing could be caused by any of a number of different factors – drought or excessive water, nutrient issues, pest, or disease. I would recommend checking with a tree expert from a more temperate zone who may have some experience with this variety of pine

  17. Theresa says:

    I have a four-story coniferous tree that has been thin and dead-looking since I bought my Omaha home 4 years ago. I’ve been told it is dying, but in the past few months it has been revealing lots of new growth and green needles. It has no other large trees nearby to shade it, and it doesn’t get much moisture when the ground is frozen during our eratic Nebraska winters. I’m not sure of its age, but it is in an old neighborhood. (My house is 99 years old.) The recent green on this tree makes me think this is no longer a lost cause. Do you think my tree can still be saved?

    • jesse says:

      If you are seeing signs of green growth, there is certainly hope. One of the best things you can do for your tree even as old as it is, is to give it a good deep watering once a month throughout the winter when you have a warm spell and the ground is relatively thaw. Let the water soak in away from the trunk, at about the distance from the trunk that the lowest branches reach. This is called the drip line, it is where water would naturally drip to as the branches shed it off. In the spring, consider giving it a tree fertilizer, something that is low in nitrogen. If you are making a trip here to Colorado, I am happy to recommend a brand we carry, Jirdon Tree & Shrub, but if you are not making that trip, talk to your local independent garden center expert and let them know you need a low nitrogen tree fertilizer. Hope that helps!

  18. Feleciana says:

    Please help. Thanks

    I have mini tree in a pot and its spikes are browning a few but i want to make sure the tree does not die. Should repotting help or are there any other ways. Its a gift to me hence want ti treasure it. I do water it. Wondering what could be wrong.

    Feleciana Netto

    • jesse says:

      If it’s been in the same pot for a long time, it could definitely be time for repotting. When the roots get too bound up, they can compact the soil and prevent water from absorbing properly. It is also beneficial to keep potted evergreens out of direct wind exposure, as this can dry out the tips of branches and cause browning like you described.

  19. Feleciana says:

    Its summer here so i have kept it indoors just for a bit of morning sun.

    • jesse says:

      Not knowing what the variety of evergreen is, I can’t be certain. Might be good to check with a garden center in your region who is more familiar with the plants in your area.

  20. Shant Zakarian says:

    We bought a beautiful potted Christmas tree and kept it indoors for 4 months. It grew new branches 3-6 inches and then the lower needles turned brown and started to fall off. I put the tree outside and now the new growth is sagging but the mature branches look firm.

    What should I do?

    Shant

    • jesse says:

      Without knowing the specific variety of tree, I can’t say for sure, but assuming it’s a variety that should be outdoor hardy, it probably spent too long indoors. When someone buys a living tree as a Christmas with the intention of planting it outside the next year, it is very important not to bring it indoors for more than a week. Any longer than that, and it can break dormancy prematurely, which is what it sounds like happened in your case. The trees need the cold to stay dormant, and they need to stay dormant in order to properly prepare for the next season’s growth. Now that it’s been moved outside, that new growth is not adequately acclimated to the cold nights, and may be going through a pretty sever shock, hence the sagging. The good news is that even if that new growth completely dies, there’s a decent chance the tree will still survive and will produce new growth next spring. I would definitely get it planted in the ground (again, assuming it’s a variety that is winter-hardy in your region) so that it can get in synch with the natural seasonal cycle.

      As for the needles turning brown and dropping, I’d say that is most likely natural needle cast. The lowest needles on the tree typically receive the least amount of light, especially indoors where the light is not as strong as it would be outside. This results in the tree deliberately casting off those needles, as they are consuming more resources to stay alive than they are producing via photosynthesis. This is also why evergreens only have needles on the exterior of the canopy, and not all the way in to the main trunk – no light means the needles are useless, so drop them.

      Hope that helps!

    • Daniel says:

      If there is green needles and there are firm yellow needles then chances are your tree is
      be still alive

  21. Ciro saverino says:

    Should I be concerned that my white pine trees are starting to yellow on the spring for the first time. Is this a cause for concern?

    • jesse says:

      Without seeing them in person it’s hard to say for sure. If they went through a dry winter without receiving any additional water, the yellowing might just be a bit of drought stress. Make sure they get good deep watering and see if the green up. You might also consider using a low nitrogen fertilizer to help them push through. I recommend Jirdon Tree & Shrub Fertilizer.

  22. Neil forgey says:

    I have some transplanted 5ft blue spruce Ben in 3years and some of them are a yellow green is this a lack of water?

  23. Danny Gowin says:

    I just planted some giant thujas and some are turning brown? Could they just be in shock?

    • jesse says:

      It’s possible. Thuja are not going to be happy in Colorado with intense sun or dry conditions, so there are a lot of reason they could be browning

  24. Dan Zulu says:

    Last fall I trimmed my shrubs (short needle don’t know the name) back more than normal. This spring they seem to be dying. Should I supplement them this year with shrub fertilizer?
    Dan Z

    • jesse says:

      That would be a good idea. Most evergreen can look pretty grim if you cut them back too hard, but more often than not they bounce back, assuming they were healthy prior to the pruning.

      • Toni says:

        As I’m reading the post I’m seeing some of the same in Ohio, my evergreen shrubs are going on 10 years old built with the house! The past few years I have learned to cut them back myself but the more we cut back the more brown and empty spaces we see in the interior on the shrubs! I don’t have a green thumb but they look bad off to me! I have 6 in all and there pretty big in size and nice focal point in my landscaping so if they can be saving I’d like to try otherwise the sooner I get them out the sooner I can get something else in and growing! What I do notice that in my subdivision most of my neighbors have already replaced with boxwood!

        • jesse says:

          Out here in Colorado it’s too dry and hot and they burn to a crisp, but in Ohio boxwoods are a good way to go. They have the added benefit of leafing out and filling in even after a hard pruning, which needled evergreens don’t do very well.

          • Marybeth says:

            Hello,

            We have several Abrovitae trees that we planted in May and June. The bottom front and some sides are brown and it is now July so no frost has hit them that we know of (unknown nursery care). What may be causing this do you think?

            Thank you in advance for your help!

            In HIS name and service,
            Marybeth

          • jesse says:

            Not sure what part of the country you’re in, but here in Colorado, arborvitae have a very strong tendency towards burning in the sun and/or wind (we promote them as good for partial to full shade in well protected areas). If they’re exposed to intense sun or drying winds, that would be a likely explanation.

            Another potential issue that we see occasionally with evergreens such as arborvitae is damage during planting. Because they have branching right at the base of the tree, it is easy to accidentally damage some of the lower branches when handling the tree during the planting process. This can result in the eventual loss of some of the lower branches, and can sometimes take a month or two to start showing the damage. This is far less common than sun/wind burn, but not unheard of.

  25. Mary says:

    I have an Emerald Green Arborvitae (Charlotte NC) it’s around 12 ft tall …this year the whole front is brown and dry..it did have a birds nest in it in the Spring..do you think it will die?

    • jesse says:

      Awfully hard to tell whether it will make it or not from way over here in Colorado. There are a number of things that could have caused the browning you’re seeing (fortunately the bird’s nest is pretty unlikely to have caused that). When we see browning on just one side of an arborvitae, it is usually from exposure to intense wind and/or sun. If the plant does not get ample water, this effect can be more noticeable. It’s also possible the plant suffered physical damage that damaged but did not break the branches on that side. There is always the possibility of disease or pest, but I am not familiar with the types of issues that could affect an arborvitae in your region. I would recommend contacting a local independent garden center or your local Extension office, as they will be better able to address the regional issues that are unique to NC.

  26. Sandy says:

    Very late to post but noticed you are in CO and I can’t find much info online. I am in NE WY and planted two vanderwolf pyramid pine trees two years ago. They are coming through 2nd winter. I water often before ground freezes late fall and also sorayneith wilt pruff. Both winters both have gotten pretty severe sunscald. My question is. Is this something that will never go away? Will it get better as they grow with larger root structure etc. should I give up on them?

    • jesse says:

      Vanderwolf are not the most resilient when it comes to severe wind, but one thing thy might help a little is watering not only at the start of winter, but also once a month throughout the winter as long as the ground is thaw enough to absorb any moisture. The wilt pruf treatments are definitely a good thing to keep up on as well. The problem may not be as bad as the root system matures and reaches deeper soil where more moisture can be found, but as I said, Vanderwolf do have a tendency towards sunscald. I’d maybe hang in there another two or three years and see if it improves, but if not I’d pull the plug and go for something a little tougher

  27. Hughene Wall says:

    my potted small evergreens are leeching out their colour We a experience deep smoke from wild fires is it possible this is the cause

    • jesse says:

      Smoke is not very likely to be the cause. Potted evergreens can struggle a bit, as they would be happier with more root space growing in the ground. They may be root-bound, which could cause yellowing and stress.

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