Q&A: Why do my hollies and other evergreens have brown and pale leaves?

holly with leaves showing sections of brown and pale color
Winterburn symptoms on holly. Photo: David L. Clement, University of Maryland Extension

Q: Several of our evergreens (different kinds) have brown or pale, bleached-looking leaves. Do they have a disease already, and can anything be done? Is it preventable in the future?

A: Most likely it’s winterburn, especially since most infectious diseases won’t cause symptoms this early and seldom impact several unrelated plants to the same degree. Winterburn is an abiotic disorder or injury – abiotic translates to without (a-) life (biotic) – meaning the condition has a non-living cause. Abiotic plant disorders are environmental, and causes include wind, water, temperature, and soil pH. In comparison, biotic factors would include insects, mites, fungi, or bacteria.

No treatment is recommended because the damage has been done, but winterburn is rarely a serious threat to a plant’s long-term health. As new growth resumes, the plant will eventually shed the damaged leaves. If it’s too much of an eyesore, you can selectively trim away the worst of it this month. Causes for winterburn typically involve a combination of cold temperatures, wind, and exposure to sun. Any autumn pruning that results in tender regrowth is priming a plant for winterburn, which is one reason it’s not recommended.

Why are cold-hardy evergreens damaged? Leaves “breathe” through tiny pores on their surface, and this gas exchange also allows water vapor to leave the leaf. Moisture leaves our bodies the same way – picture foggy breath on a cold day. Breezy days, especially in winter’s drier air, speeds-up this evaporation, as can the sun’s weak warmth. Meanwhile, during cold snaps, moisture in the surface layers of soil freezes, which prevents roots from absorbing it. Since the plant cannot replenish all of the moisture it’s losing, the leaf tissue starts to essentially freeze-dry. A thaw won’t reverse the damage because the cells have been injured, just like skin with frostbite. (Unlike our skin though, which can heal to an extent, leaf tissue can’t repair itself.)

Broadleaf evergreens are more vulnerable to winterburn than needled evergreens because the leaf surface area and evaporation potential is so much greater. Younger plants also have greater vulnerability because they are still establishing roots. This is the main reason it’s risky to plant evergreens late in the fall. Cherry laurel, boxwood, holly, rhododendron, camellia, and southern and sweetbay magnolias are common winterburn victims in our area. Plants kept in containers are also susceptible because their roots dry faster and experience more drastic temperature swings than they would in the ground.

The only actions you can take to minimize winterburn risk is to site evergreens out of the brunt of winter winds and to periodically monitor their root zones for moisture, irrigating when dry during a warm spell. Plants overwintering in pots can be sheltered a bit near a wall or windbreak, but don’t bring them inside as the interruption of dormancy may detriment their health.

Learn more and see additional photos on the Home & Garden Information Center website: Winter Damage on Landscape Plants.

By Miri Talabac, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home & Garden Information Center. Miri writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun. Read more by Miri.

Have a plant or insect question? The University of Maryland Extension has answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: