Dead Leaves on Native Rhododendrons

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dead rhododendron leavesRecently, a few homeowners and landscapers in the higher elevations are seeing large patches of rhododendrons and mountain laurel with brown leaves. When cutting into the stems and branches one can see either green tissue which means the wood is still living or brown tissue indicating death. You may be wondering what caused these symptoms and can these plants be saved?

Last summer we experienced very little rainfall, then the wildfires… and by November we reached the drought classification D4 equating to exceptional drought. As we breathed a sigh of relief into the new year, colder temperatures hit us in January. Homeowners with property in the higher elevations with shallow and or rocky soils, and in areas prone to high or gusty winds may observe brown patches on their native rhododendrons and mountain laurel. The combination of rocky or shallow soils, low soil moisture, freezing soils without a snow cover, cold temperatures and gusty winds all helped to create the “environment” for leaf desiccation and wood damage.

What to do
The prospect looks good in saving your plants and one can capitalize on this opportunity to reinvigorate your patch with various pruning approaches! One approach is to leave your patch alone and let the plants take care of themselves. This equates to waiting for new growth. Dead leaves will ultimately fall off and eventually you will see dead wood without new growth. Make cuts above growth zone to prune out dead wood.

treesAnother pruning option is to wait until after April 15th or so as we may experience a few more cold snaps. At this time frame prune back no more than 1/3 of the plant. The roots should be able to handle this and come out just fine. A third possibility is to wait until Father’s Day after all of the native rhododendrons and mountain laurel have leafed out. At this time, prune out 1/3 of the plant or more if you observe dead tissue. Of course, with any evergreen types you can prune the daylights out of these and they’ll come back just fine.

So far, brown patches of native rhododendrons and azaleas have been observed at higher elevations in Jackson, Buncombe, Transylvania and Henderson counties. I suspect as folks get out more to the hiking trails, additional sittings will be noticed and quite possibly in the lower elevations too if a rhododendron patch lies in a cold pocket.

As a final note, after pruning is complete watch your patch for new growth. You may consider fertilizing individual plants after they leaf out with ½ ounce of nitrogen e.g., 5 oz. of 10-10-10 to help promote growth.

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