My Azaleas and Rhododendrons look dead! What can I do?

Apr22nd 201327 comments
Although the leaves may be brown and curled, this doesn’t necessarily mean the plant is dead. In fact in most cases the plant will rebound easily with a little TLC


Winter Damage on a Rhododendron: Although the leaves may be brown and curled, this doesn’t necessarily mean the plant is dead. In fact in most cases the plant will rebound easily with a little TLC.

After a long, cold, snowy winter like we just had, we often see damage to our shrubs and trees often called “winter kill” or “winter damage.” The most common damage is brown or dead-looking azaleas, rhododendrons, holly and other broadleaf evergreens. Most people assume cold temperatures are to blame, but it’s actually caused by dehydration. In winter, cold dry winds and bright sunshine suck moisture from the foliage of broadleaf evergreens, much like chapped lips after a day of skiing. Plus, because the ground is usually frozen and the plant is dormant, plants can't move water through their roots back to theire leaves. The result is dehydration, browning the tips of leaves or even entire branches. The more exposed to wind and sun, the greater the damage; particularly heartbreaking when it happens to shrubs you’ve loved for 20 years or more. Yes, sometimes the plant is dead and will need to be replaced, but often winter damage only make shrubs appear dead.

How do I know if it can be saved?

Look carefully and you’ll see that the leaves may be brown and brittle but the branch may have good life. Try gently scratching the bark with a fingernail, if underneath it’s greenish and pliable it’s probably still alive. If under the bark is brown and brittle the branch is probably dead – but not necessarily the whole plant. Continue the exploration down the branches and you will probably see some life along the way. Usually I tell people to leave winter damaged shrubs alone until late May. By then you can see the new growth starting, making it easier to see and prune the brittle dead wood. In any case, don’t give up on them to soon – in early spring, winter damage often looks a lot worse than it really is! All you need is a little patience and a good organic fertilizer.

 Try gently scratching the bark with a fingernail, if underneath it’s greenish and pliable it’s probably still alive. If under the bark is brown and brittle the branch is probably dead – but not necessarily the whole plant.


The Scratch Test: Try gently scratching the bark with a fingernail, if underneath it’s greenish and pliable it’s probably still alive. If under the bark is brown and brittle the branch is probably dead – but not necessarily the whole plant.

 Use it on all broadleaf evergreens like Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Holly, Boxwood and Andromeda.



Holly-tone by Espoma: Use it on all broadleaf evergreens like Rhododendrons, Azaleas, Holly, Boxwood and Andromeda.

Help the recovery with a good organic fertilizer.

I can remember I had a Holly and an Azalea that turned completely brown from winter damage. Then after feeding with Espoma Holly-tone fertilizer and some warmer weather from Mother Nature both plants completely re-foliated and grew back to where they were the previous fall. This saved me the time and effort of replanting the shrub. The earlier in spring you take action the better because it will allow more time for the bare branches to re-bud and start to fill in. There are other products to choose from, but Holly-tone is easy to use and it’s worked well for me. If there is mulch around the base, just push it away to expose the soil. Scratch the soil surface a little to allow for good soil contact and spread Holly-tone around the drip line of the shrub (the area under all branches). Just follow instructions on bag for proper quantity. Then just replace the mulch, water and wait for the magic healing to begin. You may need to go back and do some tip pruning later to cut out some dead wood but it’s far better than throwing out a live plant.

Side note:

There are several products that help prevent winter kill. They’re called “anti-desiccants,” a kind of a sunscreen for plants. Spraying an anti-desiccant places a harmless transparent wax coating over the broadleaves. The effect is to reduce the dehydration caused by wind and sun. Typically it’s applied after the first really cold nigh in late November or December. At Mahoney’s we recommend Wilt Stop by Bonide, but there are other good products to choose from.

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'Uncle' Mike Mahoney - Mahoney’s Garden Centers

Have you’ve seen our herb and vegetable plants and wondered, “Who is Uncle Mike?” Uncle Mike is Michael Mahoney, one of the six second-generation Mahoneys. With a face full of beard and too-well-worn hat, Uncle Mike is a genuine down-to-earth guy. With a passion for...

Comments

winter kill - other plants

Hi - how about assessment of creeping phlox at this point (mid April) - if still brown, should it be clipped, or might it still come to life?

Re: winter kill - other plants

Creeping Phlox is a different situation. Because it's a perennial (as opposed to a woody shrub) its foliage will die back to the ground each winter. Each spring it will push out new green growth from the ground up. If you look closely, deep inside the plant, you should see some green starting to push it's way through. The brown foliage you are seeing right now is probably last year's growth, and yes, can be cut back.

Deer damage

Almost all my rhododendrons, azaleas, hollys, arbovites have been eaten by deer this winter. The only part that was not eaten were the lower branches that were covered by snow and the tops above 6 feet that were too tall for them to reach. This happened two years ago and they came back. Last year, for some reason, not much damage was done. I'm afraid that this time its just too much stress. Any suggestions?

RE: Deer Damage

My suggestion would be to do the same thing as if they had winter burn. Like winter burn, it's mostly just the foliage that is damaged, and if your plants are over 6' I would guess that they have nice healthy root systems which will help them recover. So for now I would fertilize them with Holly-tone, then wait a bit, let the rhododendrons and the azaleas flower, then see how they look when they start pushing out new growth. After that they may look fine, but depending on the amount of damage they may still look thin in the middle and full on the top and bottom. If so, you may want to consider pruning them to correct their shape as much as possible. Almost like fixing a bad haircut, you'll want to trim them, then let them grow out for a few seasons.

To prevent them from being eaten again next winter, I would suggest using a repellent like 'Repels-All' by Bonide (click here for more info) or Coyote Urine. Repels-All uses hot pepper and garlic which deer don't find appetizing and the scent of the Coyote urine will make them think there are predators in the area which will hopefully keep them away.

Rhododendrum not blooming

My rhododendrums are now in their 4th season. First 2 years they bloomed, but not last year, even though I fertilized them with Holly-tone. What could be the reason. They are in part shade, many pine trees in the area.

Re: Rhododendron not blooming

Shade could certainly cause your rhododendron to not produce many flowers, but if they flowered twice in that same location I wouldn't think that in the third year the shade would prevent them from flowering. I would say a more likely cause would be pruning them too early or too late, or something environmental that occurred last spring.

Pruning too early or too late is probably one of the most common reasons why Rhododendrons and Azaleas fail to flower. The ideal time to prune most flowering shrubs is just after they finish flowering. For Rhodies and Azaleas they typically produce flowers, then grow a bit, then start forming next year's flower buds. So if you prune early (like now in mid-April), or late (late summer or fall), you're most likely going to cut off the flower buds before they open.

The other possibility is that there was something weather related that prevented them from flowering. I don't remember if this happened last spring, but a really late, hard frost can damage flower buds if they are just about ready to pop. Also, I'm pretty sure this didn't happen last year, but years where there is an extremely rainy spring, sometimes the flower buds can actually rot on the plant. That rarely happens though.

Rhododendron not blooming

Hi, here in Wilmington I have the same problem. Four years of growth, and no blooms ever. I am about ready to dig it up and
replant it in the depths of the backyard instead of in front where it is doing nothing to earn its space. Not snow, not frost, not
any amount of food or attention seems to help. Its happy growing, but never ever flowers out. Is there a male/female thing with this shrub? I give up, moving on to other plants. But if there is a quick one year fix, I'd wait one more season, otherwise it's out of here!

Thanks for the info

I have a Rhododendron where half of it looked dead after last winter and I didn't do any pruning because I was afraid to, but I did apply an anti-dessicant and a fertilizer and water it very well before the ground froze. I plan to tackle this plant in late winter because I can clearly see where the damage is on the plant. The stems that are dead are black. Though I do have a question. What if the dead stems are right against the trunk? Will the trunk produce a new stem?

My newly purchased azalea

I purchased an azalea that was beautiful Tuesday in the Nursery, over night we had a frost. I purchased it
on Wednesday and you could tell the frost had killed the buds. What do I do now. Should I prune it or
when it is safe to plant it, do so and wait to see what happens?

There’s no need to prune it.

There's no need to prune it. It's unlikely that all the buds were damaged and if you prune it now, you'll be cutting off any of the buds that may still produce flowers. Assuming that it's a hardy variety, meaning you found it outside in our nursery, not inside our greenhouse, it should be planted outside in the ground now. The plant will be fine even if some of the flower buds were damaged by frost.

Should I pull off the brown leaves on my azalea?

Hi Uncle Mike - great column, very helpful; however, one thing you don't say either way is what to do about all the brown leaves on the plant.  I have 2 azaleas that, after an unusually cold winter here in KY (we broke 100-year records for low temps in the "polar vortex"), had brown leaves all over. Most of those leaves fell off one of the plants, but the other plant has kept all of its brown leaves. It looks TERRIBLE! But more than that, I'm concerned that the dead leaves may block new growth. If I leave them on, will that "block" new leaves etc from budding? Or will the new buds force the  dead, brown leaves to drop eventually?  I had a similar question with some Manhattan euonymii bushes in the front yard. But those are hardier bushes and the advice from local nurseries was to gently "broom off" the dead leaves. I did that and now they have re-bounded nicely, which is what gave me the idea that I should get the brown leaves off the azaleas too. But no one here seems sure what to do about the same problem with my azaleas. What's your advice on this point? Should I try to GENTLY "pinch" the dead leaves off? Or leave them alone? Thanks!

prunning out dead leaves

~~I would just leave them alone and feed them with something like holly tone to get them going. When the new growth breaks that will tell you what will be dead branches or winter kill and you can prune of the tops of the branches at that point. The brown leaves will start falling off at that point or anything left after the new growth breaks can usually be pruned out as your pruning out the winter kill.

dead leaves on azalea

~~I would just leave them alone and feed them with something like holly tone to get them going. When the new growth breaks that will tell you what will be dead branches or winter kill and you can prune of the tops of the branches at that point. The brown leaves will start falling off at that point or anything left after the new growth breaks can usually be pruned out as your pruning out the winter kill.

cold damage on a transplant

I adopted a 30 year old unwanted rhododrendron bush last August when my neighbours renovated their house and the bush had to go to make way for a new porch.  It was transplanted in 90 degree weather and then subsquently ALSO survived the New England winter, including the X-mas Day ice storm, up until  this last cold snap a few weeks ago in April.  Now, large sections of the bush have browning, drooping leaves.   I have purchased some Hollytone.  My three questions are 1.) When should I fertilize? 2.) Do I cut the branches with the dead leaves off? 3.) What is the prognonosis?  Thanks, from Mount Desert Island.

 

cold damage

~~The damage you’re seeing was not caused by the mild April freeze it was more of combination of the summer dig and the colder temps of January or February. The damage from winter kill can sometimes take months to show up in the winter or colder months. It’s all dehydration, cut a rose and put one in the refrigerator and one in the direct sun, witch one dries out first? But anyway feed now, wait for new growth to break this will tell you what’s alive and then cut back any dead wood.

Winter damage: arborvitae

Are the arborviate and yew susceptible to the winter damage as well?  In addition to the browning of leaves on several of my azaleas and rhododendrons over the past winter,  I see that the lower two-thirds of  some of my arbovitae and yew have lost almost all needles while the top thirds remain green and full.  Is it possible that these plants will grow needles back on what are now bare branches, or is it more likely that much of the plants died and need to be replaced?

winter damage?

~~Well this doesn’t sound like winter damage. Are they defoliated from say about 4-5 ft. down? You see winter damage is usually on the top and more sun exposed areas of the plant and are unlikely on yews and arborvitae, especially established ones. If it is from that 4-5 ft. down and they are defoliated, i.e... No foliage left just bare branches I say deer damage. Deer love both these plants, especially in the winter when food gets scarce. They will re foliate if they get good sun and a fertilizer like holly tone will help them along but if you think this is the case try a repellent in late fall to prevent this in the future, they are  organic and don’t harm deer, it just makes them taste nasty. I’m just speculating here but let me know if you think this might be your problem.

native shrubs hit

I live in Albany NY area - What surprises , and dismays, me is the fact that so many of my established native shrubs got hit so hard this winter while others not so much.  Ruby spice clethra, pinksters, pink mist azaeleas are all bare except for a few leaves near the bottom of the plants.   But the Manhattan Euonymous  and Cornell Pink in same area have never looked better.    Plants are still alive so waiting and hoping .....

Thank you for the encouragment in previous posts on this subject.

azalea bush

I have an azalea bush that is half dead and half alive--green and growing. If  I cut it all back like 1/2 its size will it all come back? I have had it for years but this winter took its toll. I have let it go all summer but the dead parts are still dead.   any ideas???

Thanks

 

dead on the azalea

~~If it hasn’t started to grow by now I’d say it’s dead. So just cut out that dead wood and the plant should regrow in time. If it looks real bad you might want to replace it.

Azalea leaf damage

Hi; I have three 2nd year azaleas growing in a group that have developed this year severe damage to more than 70% of the leaves. Its hard to tell  if I have one problem or two. This all started after they bloomed  I have small leaf spots and I have holes and chewed edges. Most of the leaves are affected with both spots and holes/damaged edges. I have had a few smaller branches die. The leaf spots are mostly small ( 1/8 " ) but there are some that are larger. There are holes in the middle of the leaf and sections of the leaf off due to chewing. I can`t tell if the holes are really leaf spots that have become holes.  I don`t  see anything on the plants. Despite being  damaged the leaves are not falling off (yet ) but they have an overall look of being brown/black and not so green. The plants are in heavy shade, receiving only light  sunlight in the AM and brightness during the day. They are near a sprinkler head and they probably receive more water than they should. I plan to correct his in the near future.

Thanks      Larry               

 

azelea leaf damage

~~The best thing is for you to bring in samples or branches and leaves so we can look at them and ask you a few questions. But speculating here, I think the black spots on the leaves are a disease called leaf spot and is not a big deal on azaleas, I would leave it alone for now, back down on the watering if possible and maybe do a fungicide like actinovate  in spring after flowering and after the new growth starts to grow.
The holes are probably beetles or weevils. Weevils are nocturnal and feed at night and beetles can feed anytime this is why you’re not seeing them. Most of the damage is probably done now but something like eight or neem oil in June or July would stop it. Like I said try to bring us in a sample so we can look at it and we may have some questions that would help us help you.
 

Brown azalea leaves

Hello I have brown leaves on my azalea plants they were put in new this year I went on vacation for two weeks and I think  they just didn't get enough water what's the best thing for them to get green leaves back

 

~~Azaleas are shallow rooted

~~Azaleas are shallow rooted and need a bit more water than most shrubs, especially when they are first planted. If it went dry just water it, don’t add any fertilizer, unless it’s organic like a Neptune’s harvest, stay away from synthetic fertilizers if it’s newly planted. Water and time should bring it back.

rhodo leaves brown & curling over summer.

What if the rhodo was purchased young in the spring, potted healthy, & then starts turning brown from leaf margins towards center? Even the new growth appears to be turning brown. I have two plants potted next to each other in part sun on my patio. One is healthy, one is turning brown. Both planted with organic soil, compost, & mulched.

brown leaves on rhodo

~~Usually browning from the leaf margins in is a winter kill or lack of water issue, which is actually the same. It only has to go dry once for this to happen and I’ve seen 10 plants planted right in a row and one have drought damage even though they were all treated the same. This doesn’t sound like any common insect or disease that hit rhodies like root weevil, scale, phytopthera or leaf spot. The only other thing I can think of is something wrong with the soil or over fertilized. Sometime salt build up or maybe even “hot” (that is compost that is still composting) soil can cause things like this. The best thing is for you is to bring in a sample or maybe some pictures so we can talk and it may help diagnose the problem.

Brown leaves in fall.

We built a new home this past winter.  In June, landscaper planted 3 azalea bushes in our front yard.  They were beautiful.   Now that the weather has gotten colder, the leaves are brown.  Is this usual or should I be concerned?  Also, there are tree leaves that have gathered in the bushes.  Could that be the problem?  Thank you for any information.  (We live in central PA.)

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