Brown is the new evergreen, from front yard trees to Christmas trees – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Chalk up another consequence of our brutal winter: Evergreen trees this spring aren’t so green.
State officials report that just about everywhere, cone-bearing conifers and other types of evergreens are displaying dead branches and brown and discolored needles. Sometimes entire evergreens have turned brown.
The damage comes from the wind, snow and excessive cold that were hallmarks of the winter of 2013-’14.
“Problems are definitely prevalent this year,” said Todd Lanigan, a plant, pest and disease specialist for the state Department of Natural Resources.
The DNR has been getting so many calls that officials released a statement last week urging people not to do anything rash. The DNR suggests people spend the spring watching to see what happens before they begin trimming or cutting down their trees.
Arborist Fred Hoppe agreed, noting evergreen worries are on a lot of people’s minds.
“It’s been the top question we’ve been asked about this spring,” said Hoppe of Hoppe Tree Service, 6115 W. Blue Mound Road. “You’re seeing it everywhere.”
That includes the state’s large Christmas tree industry, where virtually every variety is showing signs of winter stress.
“Growers are telling us they are seeing winter damage — more than most years,” said Cheryl Nicholson, executive secretary of the Wisconsin Christmas Tree Producers Association. “It’s pretty widespread.”
The problem can be caused by three different factors, according to experts.
In one scenario, evergreens are literally drying up. When the ground is frozen for long periods, the trees aren’t able to replenish moisture. Harsh wind and excessive sunlight, exacerbated by the abundance of reflective snow, compound the problem, according to Lanigan.
In another instance known as winter burn, needles or buds of evergreens are damaged by rapid changes in temperatures. This frequently happens when cold night temperatures give way to relatively higher temperatures during the day. Winter burn often occurs on the south side of a tree, with the sun’s heat reflecting off the snow.
The third cause comes from road salt. Entire groups of trees and shrubs can be harmed by salt spray and puddling of salt-heavy runoff. That can produce scattered streaks and brown spots and may cause needles to die.
Milwaukee and Madison had their coldest winters in 35 years, according to the National Weather Service. “Winter,” in this case, is defined as the meteorological winter from the beginning of December through the end of February, although weather service data show plenty of subfreezing days in March and April.
Debby Hughes, an avid gardener from Whitefish Bay, first started seeing the problem about a month ago in her own neighborhood.
“I started looking around, and it’s pretty much all over,” she said. “It’s all over town.”
A large evergreen in her front yard looks “horrific,” Hughes said. She plans to call a horticulturist, who is a friend, to find out what can be done.
Experts say many will see some tree branches die, but generally not the entire tree. Young trees might be the most vulnerable.
Lanigan and Hoppe said spring rain will play an important role in an evergreen’s health. Rain this past week in the Milwaukee area is helping, Hoppe said.
One way to check on the health is to cut open a bud and look for signs of green, Lanigan said. If it’s brown, that section of the tree will not grow back.
Nicholson of the Christmas tree growers said her members will be looking for signs of fresh buds and won’t do major trimming until June or July. Brown needles signify death, but if there are viable buds on the same branch, new growth should occur, she said.
Hoppe said homeowners should follow a similar approach and wait for new growth to develop later this month and to prune any dead branches afterward. He suggested using mulch to keep the soil moist. Fertilizer could also help.
One option for next year for high-value evergreens is to wrap those most exposed to the full onslaught of winter’s wind and cold, Hoppe said. Wrapping a tree has the added benefit of protecting branches from browsing deer, he said.
Hughes said experienced gardeners are adept at adjusting to the vagaries of the weather, but she also doesn’t believe this year’s winter die-off should be taken lightly.
“We have a very fragile ecosystem, and we need to tread lightly on this earth,” she said. “Nothing is forever.”
WHAT TO DO?
■ Wait for new growth to develop this month.
■ Prune any dead branches afterward.
■ Use mulch to keep the soil moist, and perhaps fertilizer.