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University of Illinois Extension serving Clark, Crawford and Edgar Counties

Clark County
15493 N State Hwy 1
Marshall, IL 62441
Phone: 217-826-5422
FAX: 217-826-8631
Hours: Monday - Friday 8 am to 4:30 pm (Closed 12 - 1pm)

Crawford County
301 S Cross St
Suite 290
Robinson, IL 62454
Phone: 618-546-1549
FAX: 618-544-3222
Hours: Monday - Friday 8 am to 4:30 pm (Closed 12 - 1pm)

Edgar County
210 W Washington
Paris, IL 61944
Phone: 217-465-8585
FAX: 217-463-1192
Hours: Monday - Friday 8 am to 4:30 pm (Closed 12 - 1pm)

News Release

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Master Gardener Column November 2017

By Jan Phipps


            Have you ever wondered why some deciduous trees don’t drop their dead leaves until late winter or early spring instead of autumn like the rest of the deciduous trees? I think about it every year when an oak in my yard stays foliated all winter. Beeches do the same thing.

            It turns out they may not have evolved into fully deciduous trees, yet. In the evolution timeline, evergreens were the first trees. They hang onto their leaves (in some cases, needles) for several years, but all leaves have a life span and eventually evergreen leaves die and drop.

            The second class of trees is deciduous - trees that produce and drop those same leaves ever year in the fall as the tree goes dormant for the winter, usually after a blaze of color.

            Then we have the beeches and oaks that may not yet have evolved to be fully deciduous. They retain their dead leaves in a process called “marcescence”. It seems to be a state between evergreen and deciduous.

            Marcescence is considered a juvenile trait, often seen on lower branches and young trees. Some speculate it is an adaptation to dry and infertile growing conditions. Waiting to drop their leaves in the spring provides the tree with organic matter when it needs it most. Another theory suggests leaves on the lower branches trap snow, thus providing extra moisture at the base of the plant when coming out of dormancy. The leaves also act as a barrier, protecting buds and twigs from harsh winter weather and foraging deer.

            Whatever the reason, marcescence seems to work for oak and beech trees.

            Fall is an excellent time to start a compost pile, especially if you are looking for a way to take advantage of fallen leaves and perennial and/or vegetable garden debris cleanup. However, there are a few things you should refrain from adding to the compost.

            Diseased plant material, especially anything fungal should be thrown out. You don’t want to spread fungus spores when using the compost on your gardens.

            Branches you pruned because of insect problems. Eggs and larvae often harbor in woody material. Tent caterpillars and bagworms should be burned.

            Any weeds, perennial or annual, with seed heads still attached. Weeds comprise a large portion of my green additives throughout the growing season, but I either pull them before they set seed, or cut off the seed heads. Also, watch out for perennial weeds with viable roots. I use them in my compost, but either turn them under if they start to grow, or pull them out and lay them on top to desiccate in the sun and wind.

            This column is written on behalf of the University of Illinois Extension Master Gardeners of Edgar County. If you have a horticulture question, please contact the Edgar County Extension Office at 217-465-8585.