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Chicago Urban Gardening

The day to day experiences of a University of Illinois Extension Urban Horticulture Educator in Chicago, Illinois

Spring Browning of Evergreens

Posted by Ron Wolford -

"Browning on pines and other evergreens are very noticeable right now in central Illinois," according to Rhonda Ferree, Extension Educator in Horticulture. Although it is unsightly, in most cases the browning is not a major cause for concern. Fortunately in most instances, the problem is probably due to winter injury and the plant will recover.

Evergreens that are susceptible to winter browning, also called desiccation, include white pines, spruce, fir and arborvitae. All over the plant you will see needles turning brown and in severe situations the entire plant will turn brown.

Winter desiccation on evergreens is due to the loss of moisture from the winter sun. The green color of the needles heats up beyond the ambient air temperature and the frozen soil cannot send water through the root system. Openings in the plant's needles (called pores) open and moisture vapor leaves the needles. If the plant cannot take up water from the frozen soil to replace what is lost through the needles, the needles turn brown.

Ferree recommends that if you see browning on your evergreens, check the plant buds. If they are green and pliable, there is a chance that the plant will revive. If buds are crisp and brown, you have probably lost that portion or the entire plant. Don't prune out branches or cut down the tree too soon. Wait until you see other plants of the same type green up and see what life returns to your plant. If still brown, removal is recommended. A dead tree can serve as a host to many pest problems and should be destroyed. On the other hand, if the buds are green and pliable, the buds are likely not adversely affected and the plants will regreen within the brown area.

This problem is common on young trees, especially if they were planted recently. If the damaged evergreen is located near a road or sidewalk, it could have been exposed to de-icing salts. Salt damage is very similar to general winter desiccation, but is usually one-sided. If not too severe, plants can also recover from salt injury.

There are insects and disease problems that can also damage evergreen plants. Since we are seeing needle browning on a wide variety of evergreen plants, a specific disease or insect problem can typically be ruled out. However, if an evergreen has had brown needles since last fall it could be an insect or disease problem. Proper identification of the main problem is important to determine if and when control is needed.

To prevent evergreen browning next winter, follow these simple tips. Be sure landscape plants, especially evergreens, go into the winter with plenty of soil moisture. Often deep fall watering is recommended. For high value plants, an anti-desiccant can be sprayed on the foliage to reduce moisture loss. To be effective, these products need to be applied according to label direction two to three times during winter.

For more information on this or other plant problems, contact your local Extension office. Find your local office by visiting You can also post questions on Rhonda's new facebook page at

Source: Rhonda J. Ferree, Associate Regional Director,

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