when inner conifer needles turn yellow or brown

inner foliage of Chamaecyparis conifer browningDON’T PANIC: Nothing’s wrong, and they’re not all dying in unison, I promise. Though we commonly call them “evergreens,” conifers such as pine, arborvitae, spruce and Hinoki cypress (above) lighten their load of old needles (the inner ones) in late summer and fall, with a show of yellowing or browning that can scare a gardener at first.

This phenomenon should not be confused with browning at the tips or overall yellowing or browning that can happen at other times—such as from winter desiccation; from the effects of roadside salts; from pests and diseases (including diplodia tip blight in some pines, or phomopsis tip blight in spruce and non-resistant junipers, or similar looking kabatina in junipers); or from drought. (See what road-salt damage and winterburn look like by comparison in these photos.)

inner needles of white pine turning yellow and brownThe browning I noticed in late July on my Eastern red cedar in the front yard (Juniperus virginiana) is suddenly showing up as gold or rusty-brown or a progression from one to the other on many other conifer species. The Eastern white pines (Pinus strobus), above, with their long needles, are always the most dramatic, turning what looks like mostly gold at first. Hard to believe the plant will be OK.

But in fact inner needle-drop is a normal part of the life cycle, though the rate varies by species, and can also accelerate if environmental stresses like dry conditions or pest infestation have affected the tree or shrubs in a given season.

Inner foliage of conifer browningBefore you call the arborist in, though, go inspect: Look at a branch closely (such as in the Thuja occidentalis, above), to identify where along it the fading foliage is. I found the illustration below on a Michigan State University Extension factsheet, showing the natural aging and shedding cycle (again, it varies by species how long till leaves are shed).

The losses should generally be from the inside out, not at the branch tips. Inner needles are the oldest, and as they age and get shaded by new growth farther out, they photosynthesize less effectively and are eventually shed. The plant lightens its load, and good thing, since snow and ice may be coming and extra needles could hold too much weight for the longer branches to bear.

browning inner Chamaecyparis needlesAll conifers do this, just in varying degrees (that’s a Thuja plicata just above), and at various speeds from every couple of years to every five or longer. In fact some, such as metasequoia and bald cypress and larch, do it thoroughly every year–the so-called deciduous conifers. But that’s another story.

Speaking of evergreens: Some broadleaf ones such as Rhododendron will be pushing off old, useless foliage now, too. The only thing I’m worrying about there: the big old leathery foliage is falling into the frogpond and making the tenants angry. As the official janitor, my workload is temporarily increased, but if I don’t keep up I could have an amphibian riot on my hands.

factsheets on fall browning of conifer needles

  1. Rachel says:

    Margaret, it’s like you’re reading my mind! Yesterday, on a walk around the reservoir and garden I volunteer at, I got really worried that a bunch of “evergreens” were dying. But this is the precise way their needles were browning. Thanks for the reassurance.

    1. margaret says:

      Very funny, Rachel. I think we all gasp around now as if everything is doomed. Just nature! See you soon again, I hope.

  2. Trixie says:

    Thanks for posting this. It is so timely! Just this week I noticed some yellowing parts on a few cypress and got worried. I already started planning in my head what I might put in their place, should they bite the dust. Relieved to know this is likely just part of their normal cycle.

    1. margaret says:

      You’re welcome, Trixie. Even knowing about it it’s startling when it happens…visually so serious looking! See you soon, I hope.

  3. Hi Margaret,
    I also have several Hinoki cypress in my yard which have turned yellow as in your photo. My lawn men told me to strip off those leaves. Do you agree? Also, do you pluck off the ends of the branches of the Hinoki to encourage less height and more girth, or do you think the natural growth is better for the trees? I am concerned about these trees in my yard as I was unfamiliar with them yet allowed them to be planted. (Never will make this mistake again!) I may have to move them as they are in the foundation plantings and growing rapidly. Thanks so much for your advice. I enjoy your posts. Linda

  4. Kate Caruso says:

    Once again, Margaret, such a timely and helpful post. I noticed this on my arbovitaes and started to push the panic button….whew! How I would replace those lovelies I’ll never know. Now I can put my attention into worrying about something else out there! :)

  5. Hi Margaret, this is one of the more frequent questions that I receive in emails beginning mid summer to fall. Most new, and some not so new, gardeners don’t realize this happens. I’ve scheduled your page to post on our Facebook Fan Page tomorrow afternoon (Tuesday, October 16th).
    Thank you,
    Cheryl Jones
    Greenwood Nursery

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Cheryl. Nice of you to say hello! Yes, I am asked this a lot so I thought it was worth repeating. See you soon again, I hope.

  6. Beverly, zone 6 eastern PA says:

    I absentmindedly allowed 4 voluptuous gourd vines to escape their confines and use my Arborvitae Hedge as a trellis. We needed a stepladder AND a pole pruner AND a towel-padded wash basket to cut and catch 31 weighty dipper and bottle gourds. While we climbed up a ladder inside the hedge, we shoved lower branches out of the way and jostled those above us. The naturally-shedding brown needles coated my hair, my arms, went inside my shirt, my bra and eventually ended up all over the bathroom rug when I disrobed for that evening’s shower. I like them better when they stay outside, but it’s good to know it’s a naturally occurrence.

  7. frani says:

    Hi Margaret, I listened to your podcast about conifers. Wonderful as always! We have a live tree for christmas. Would any of the lovely conifers you talked about be able to survive a week in the house as a christmas tree? And then be planted outside? I live in bucks county pa, zone 6.
    Thanks for all of your inspiration, Frani

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Frani. I think it’s the same for all of them — you have to keep them as cool as possible and inside as short as possible. I suspect the concolor fir (popular as a holiday tree cut too) might be a goodie to try.

  8. Thanks for this great post. In the Southwest, we experience bark beetles and so needle drop is always a cause for alarm. It’s important to remember to water in the winter if there hasn’t been much precip as pests love those weak trees. I also clear out the needle from the interior of dense mugos (which I should prune) in order to avoid more needle drop due to lack of sun, air flow etc. Unfortunately I wore a short sleeved shirt and had a terrible rash from needles. Just a note of caution. Love your site and the good information. Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Polly. I get a rash on the inside of my forearms from some junipers, I think. (I used to have some here; don’t at the moment.) Good point! Nice to “meet” you (and yes, time for some lightening up on some of my overstuffed-with-old-needles dwarf white pines here too!).

  9. DeLinda Owens-Llewellyn says:

    Thank you, Margaret. The excellent pictures were very helpful, reading about plant symptoms is one thing, a picture tells all. ( Your pictures are always particularly good. )


  10. joan packer says:

    You are so lucky to have those lovely frogs so I guess you will have to work hard and keep their pond clear!

  11. Judy says:

    Hi Margaret,

    Thank you for posting this. I have two small cypresses by my front door… and, for a few years, the needles have turned brown.. especially toward the center. The outer part looks good and has growth and is full. However, the back of the shrubs look pretty bald. I guess it’s because that part is not too exposed to the sun. It’s good to know that the browning part is normal.

  12. Joellen Curtis says:

    My Hinoke cypress is all brown with tinges of green through out , it has been very cold here in Michigan. I planted in the fall on the south east corner of my house , I sprayed with wilt Pruf and put up a wind shield as Hinoke extends out of protection of the house about 3 ft, just wondering if the brown turns back to green in the spring?

  13. lisa ratza says:

    My Hinoki Cypressturned almost totally brown and the other one third brown.
    is there a chance it will com back?
    Should I clip off the brown branches?We did have a devastating Winter!!!!

    Lisa Ratza

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Lisa. Sounds extreme. Certain varieties can get winterburn in a windy/too sunny spot in the cold season. I never do anything until I see if the plant intends to “push” new growth — so it may be a little early to be certain how much is dead, and how much just damaged. It’s normal for the INNER foliage to brown off and drop periodically, but not the outer. The trouble with trying to correctively prune is that you can’t cut Hinoki cypress back past the fresh newish wood…the inner wood doesn’t have the potential to make new buds and push new growth. So if the damage goes deep into the plant, it won’t regenerate. Sounds from your description that the damage is severe (which I would expect to be permanent) but again: I’d just wait a little longer to see if there are any signs of life, particularly in the one that’s less damaged.

  14. Lind Sayre says:

    I just recently transplanted two lea land pines they were a year old. The inside by the trunk is all turning yellow. Does this mean too much water or not enough. Please help I don’t want to lose them.

  15. Ed says:

    Thanks for the post on interior browning of confers. I have 8 Spartan Jupiters that I purchased from a nursery last fall and are experiencing the same problem thin summer in the 100 degree Texas sun. The only other problems I have noticed have been slight winter discoloration on the Southwestern sides, and seems to be some webbing lately from spider mites? that needs attention. Should I simply but the 3 in 1 tree solution to take care of any current issues, or try to focus solely on the mite problem? I am noticing individual twig clusters dieing on select branches, but not near the tips or affecting any one individul branch completely. I am wondering if this isolated cluster browning on various locations of all the trees is being caused by the insects or perhaps not enough water. We are in a semi drought situation this year, and due to strict watering restrictions, the tress may not be getting enough moisture so soon after being planted. How much weekly water would be normal at this point in time? Again, its been 1 year now, and they are each approx 8 -10 ft tall & 3 -4 ft wide.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Ed. I do think the too-little-water stress is encouraging your other troubles, yes. Multiple stressors allow a pest to get the upper hand, whereas in a normal weather year you might have less pressure from them. Newly transplanted trees or shrubs, whose roots aren’t settled in yet, means yet another layer of stress for these plants. Read this NCSU factsheet on juniper problems to see if in fact you have mites (it explains how to put down a sheet or paper and bang on a branch to dislodge and count them) and this one (if it is mites!) from Colorado State.

      1. Ed says:

        Thank you,

        Yes watering is most likely part of the overall problem. I try to water once a week by drip line (approx 2-4 gal?) regardless of allowed scheduled days or normal rainfall precipitation. I will look further into pest control, but can you suggest an amount / time to water per tree based on my current situation. I am afraid of over watering since I have lost other types of trees in the past due to water logged issues in this heavy clay soil environment.


  16. Hi Margaret..What lovely photos of the Roach girls!!. My garden is covered with pine needles…
    under the trees it is five inches thick in some places. In the past i have used the needles for mulch under the roses…but it seems that is a bad idea. I will eventually rake them all up to
    the fence (about 50 ft..long) but any suggestions on what could be done with them? It is a very tall pine tree (seven of them)…They are about 50 ft or more tall. The active growth is way
    up at the top, but there are a few branches at lower levels. I keep them as they shield me from traffic noise and they are pretty with the sunset behind them. As always….my very best
    wishes…I wish Copake Falls was not so far from Easton! Anne

  17. Douglas Wooley says:

    Like Anne, I have a super-abundance of pine needles from a 60- foot white pine. Anyone else have suggestions for their use beside mulching, or is composting them the best solution?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Douglas. Is it not possible to leave them beneath the tree or other conifers? Are they too messy there? I know the pines love to “mulch themselves” so with mine I try to leave most of the needles beneath.

  18. Amy says:

    Hello! I’ve only just found your website, while trying to determine if my Hinoki cypresses are alright. Based on the article, I THINK they’re ok, but would it be possible to send you photos and get your thoughts? I’m very new to this, and did all the garden installation myself, so I don’t have a landscaper to call on. Thanks!

  19. gloria says:

    Thank you so much for helping me determine what is going on with my sister’s pine tree. I had a feeling it was normal shedding but the tree was planted twenty years ago and neither myself or my sister ever noticed the tree doing this before. Hopefully the tree will be fine. Thanks again

    1. margaret says:

      You’re welcome, Gloria. It is a bit shocking, isn’t it? The white pines here always scare me with all their yellow needles, but then it’s all OK once they shed.

  20. Amy says:

    Hi Margaret,
    I’m wondering if you can provide a little insight and reassurance for me. I have a pair of hinoki false cypress in my yard, just planted this past summer. They’ve done fine through the heat, and seem well established so far, but have gone heavily yellow from the trunk to mid-way up each branch. I know needle drop can vary by species – is this “normal” behavior for this type of tree? I’ve never planted conifers before, and have never experienced this level of die-off on the existing evergreens I have, so I’m a little concerned. Any help would be appreciated!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Amy. It can be startling, especially on the Hinoki, and will be even more extreme when the plants are in a semi-shady spot, I think (or frankly on mine, on the lowest branches, which get the least light of all). I would keep them well-watered as with any new transplant, and watch how they do next spring, and try not to worry. I can’t see your plants from here, of course, but again: I know it is startling with Hinokis, even if it’s “normal” — even if nothing else is up. Fingers crossed!

  21. Freddie says:

    Is it necessary to remove the fallen brown needles at the base of an arborvita? The brown needles get clogged around the base of the tree and I didn’t know if it was necessary to remove those each year for better air circulation, etc. Thanks for any advice.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Freddie. In a way the trees (of all kinds) sort of “mulch themselves” with their fallen debris, if you mean the faded foliage/needles that drop to the ground. No need to remove them, but if it looks messy, either put some better mulch on top, or remove them then mulch the base of the tree.

      With the ones that hang on too long and look unsightly, all brown and crispy but still on the interior of the branches, I sometimes run my ran gently along the inner twigs to release them.

  22. Heather says:

    Hello- We have 5 white pines that we planted 2 years ago. They are all doing well except 1, which is almost completely brown. It seems like way more than the natural inner browning that occurs. We saw it happening over the 2nd half of the winter, and now that Spring is here, it does not look any better. We are in New Jersey and the winter was colder than normal and we had a good amount of snow. Any ideas on who we might save it?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Heather. “Almost completely brown” sounds like past the point of return with a white pine, particularly if you try gently bending the twigs/branches starting outside and working inward to thicker/bigger stuff, feeling your way around and as I say bending gently, and find that the wood, too, is brittle, not pliant. Meaning dead. So I am always most concerned to investigate the condition of the wood, not just the needles (leaves). Theoretically, foliage can regenerate; not massive dieback in the wood, though. It would all have to be pruned off…which is fine if it;’s a branch here or there, but not all of them, or most.

      Browning in winter is often caused when the tree doesn’t have enough moisture in it to withstand the dry, often windy, cold outdoor conditions…so if it went into winter not sufficiently hydrated to withstand the elements ahead. It can also occur from road-salt exposure, if near the road, and from some diseases, too, but those often take longer to show their effects–sort of delayed until summer-ish. This good basic fact sheet from Iowa State also has more detailed links in it.

  23. Map Petal says:

    I have a dwarf Hinoki cypress that began to brown at the outer tips about a week ago. In late May I put it in a zinc railing planter on my balcony in Manhattan, NY, facing ~ENE, it gets sun up to noontime. I planted it in May. In an adjacent zinc planter, two other conifers that got a bit more sun began browning on the tips many weeks ago – first the one that got most sun, then the next. They are now both dead and awaiting removal. The dwarf Hinoki in the adjacent planter seemed fine during the demise of the other two – until recently when it too began to brown at the needle tips on the outer branches. This is definitely not a case of shedding from the middle. No bugs or fungi, as far as I can tell – but I’m very new at this and don’t know what to look for. I did put dead branches and needles from the dead conifers around the hinoki as mulch – was that a mistake? “Just west” of the hinoki in the same planter are a lime desana and a spreading wood fern. The desana grows like a weed and I’ve cut it back many times already. The fern has also grown nicely but it too began to brown at some tips; the browning quickly turns black and crumbles to dust at a touch. … Would be grateful for any diagnosis, treatment plan, and prognosis.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Map Petal. I was hold an event yesterday, so I was unable to “moderate” (approve, and answer) your comment till now.

      I don’t think a Hinoki makes a good subject for a metal rooftop container, and I think you proved that the hard way. They don’t like windy spots, which can dry (burn) their foliage; they don’t like to dry out (which happens to roots in a pot, especially a heat-absorbing metal one, faster than you’d think). If they dry out and are in a windy spot, they can burn, and the foliage gets brown. In winter, they can really get “winterburn” from winds, too.

      Roots in a pot (again, especially metal or dark-colored pots) can really bake, and often there is not enough insulation of soil volume (as there would be if planted in the ground) to moderate temperature spikes. So you have hot, baking weather, an exposed rooftop site, and they probably dried out from the combination of stressors.

      Yes, there could be a disease…though Hinokis are thought of as fairly resistant to many issues. But I think it was stress.

      Many ferns, especially shade ones, fade somewhat (or sometimes a lot) as summer comes on and weather gets hotter, even if they are planted in the ground. They look most fresh in the spring (or in evenly moist soil in shade). I sometimes cut off any nasty-looking fronds around now, such as of my ostrich ferns here. So this is probably just summer heat and aging of the foliage (or underwatering, or both).

      Rooftop growing in containers present extra challenges to plants (and therefor to gardeners).

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