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. Bradi says:

    Hi there!
    Thank you for this post!
    It was very helpful!
    I have a couple questions on my arborvitaes, here in Seattle!
    I have 15 arborvitaes that are at least 5 yrs old, that were planted before we moved in, as a privacy hedge. It is located between our house and a very busy street, in a small retaining wall. The street side of the trees are all showing certain levels of wear/road rash, a couple so badly that we are starting to be able to see through them!
    They are planted atop a small mildly graded retaining wall, that’s only about 2′ wide, and graded from 4′ to ground level. With wall rockery on house side, and sidewalk on the other. I’m wondering 2 things.
    Is there anything I can do about the care of the rashed sides of the trees, and is there anything I can do to make them not be so root bound in the retaining wall!? Thanks for any advice you may have?

  2. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    Just this morning, I tugged my XL silver garden cart two doors down and across the street to rake up freshly fallen white pine needles from the neighbors’ lawn. They can’t believe I want them. I can’t believe they don’t use them! I made three trips today and will go back again in a few days when more are shed. I stash the needles all winter in a tall pile with a swatch of rubber roofing material on top to keep them dry. There is no better mulch that I have found for my gardening needs. In spring, I apply them on vegetable beds, around newly planted annuals, muddy paths, anyplace where bare earth would be a disadvantage. Needles are free, attractive, they unify the appearance of the beds and rainwater goes right through. They can sometimes be used for two years before the cuticle wears off. Then I collect them and place them in thin layers in my many compost bins.
    I also use my own Japanese Black Pine needles, but the neighbors’ needles are softer and more plentiful. Win, win. Their yard gets raked off and my garden beds prosper.

  3. Bill says:

    I noted the same thing on my Fat Albert trees today! After a full panic from reading several articles about some fungus set to doom the trees, and almost calling my arborist, I knew there had to be another answer. Two of my 4 are doing this at the exact same time. The others could be a year younger? The fungus shouldn’t strike and show symptoms within a couple days on seperate trees and it hasn’t been too wet or too dry lately. Then I stumbled on your article, chuckled and was relieved when I read “don’t panic” and don’t call the arborist! THANK YOU!

    1. margaret says:

      I still almost panic when it starts here, Bill — because on some things (like white pines locally) it really looks like hell. :)

  4. Becky says:

    Thank you for this post! So helpful as I was near panic when I saw ALL of the 18 trees we planted about 9 months ago were turning yellow brown near the trunk of the trees. I just told my son I was going to have to find an arborist. I appreciate the knowledge!

  5. Cynthia Lovewell says:

    Wanted more information regarding transplalnation. only we can educate ourselves on the type of tree s that would thrive in my Northern California environment. I have several trees that i plan to remove with my Arborist’s and Landscapers blessings.

  6. Jan Maree says:

    Hi … l purchased two bald cypress trees. I planted them in humongous clay pots. They seemed happy for almost two years. Suddenly one started to turn this beautiful orange color. However, one branch at the bottom is green! Then all of the needles have fallen off except for the one green healthy looking branch on the bottom. It looks like a twig! The other tree is perfect. Help! Is my tree dying? Why does it have one green branch? Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jan. I don’t know where you live Zone-wise or any other details, but…. Taxodium distichum, the bald cypress, growing to 75 or more feet tall and 25 or 40 feet wide — in the wild, even taller. It is famous for loving moist/wet sites. So as a specimen for a pot, which is confined and also can be high and dry? Not a good choice. It’s also a deciduous conifer — meaning it is meant to drop its needles each year for the offseason (unlike evergreen conifers like pines, or spruces). Are we sure that you have bald cypress?

  7. Terry says:

    my bushes are doing this exact thing, right around the 3 year old mark. what will happen if i cut them back? they are getting too big, but i haven’t cut them back because it would take all the green off on the outside and just leave the brown inside. how long will it take for them to green up again on the inside?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Terry. Whether you can cut them back and how far and when to do it depends what they are — what genus of plant (like a pine versus a juniper versus a spruce or yew or whatever). Do you know?

  8. Becky Corbet says:

    My chamaecyparis boulevard are extremely brown at the trunk and 1/3 way to the tips. Love these when they’re a beautiful silvery blue/green…. should I cut back all the brown? I’m in zone 5…

    1. Rena says:

      I am so grateful I came across your article! I’ve been so concerned about a narrow weeping Alaskan cedar we had planted this past February I swear it’s on the verge of dying. Quite a few of the lower to middle branches are turning brown even though the browning hasn’t extended to the end of the branches it seems to be extreme and a bit early in the season. Is that characteristic of newly planted trees? Am I over watering? Do I need to fertilize? Or do you recommend I seek a professional? Appreciate any advice, thank you!

      1. margaret says:

        What I am describing — browning of inner (oldest) needles in late summer or fall — should not be as extreme as you describe, and again the shedding typically happens in summer/fall. Newly planted trees can sulk for many reasons including too little water (people often water only the surface and not deeply or regularly) or too much water or damage to the rootball that occurred during the transition or … so I do not know from here what is up. Do not feed an ailing plant — get a proper diagnosis first, perhaps by contacting the best local nursery (or the place you got it) or your local Cooperative Extension service.

  9. Randy Dishongh says:

    Thank you so much for the Don’t panic article. I have 18 Leyland Cypress trees planted in zigzag fashion to eventually block an ugly Commercial Business that I won’t name!! planted in the fall 3-4 years ago. Had some inside needle browning after first winter. Panicked and sprayed Daconil. They recoverd and now much bigger and after a cold wet winter have the ‘
    “blues” much worse this time in varying degrees. the smaller 4 on the end seem to be the worse. Panicked again and sprayed once with Daconil probably to make me feel better. So should I put the Sprayer in storage and watch them get better during our usually hor dry Summer in NE Ms.? Thank you

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Randy. The inner browning (beginning the shedding old old needles) commences late summer and fall, not after the winter. You should get a proper diagnosis from your county Cooperative Extension (or a very, very good local nursery that has expert staff), I think. Could be winter injury or one if a couple of diseases/pests. I read this U of Georgia fact sheet about those, FYI, and a shorter piece highlighting one of the issues. Often hard for us homeowners to diagnose things like this without some assistance, and befor the trees decline more that seems warranted.

  10. Little Ike says:

    I have newly installed pines zone 6 all showing yellow to brown shedding as you described. I’m used to it on the pinus strobus Nana but my new specimens I have experienced scale and fungus, very bad year to install a new garden. My Arborist didn’t comfort me as much as your marvelous post. Thank you I shall sleep much better.

  11. Phyllis Geanopulos says:

    Just planted a 7foot hinoki cypress (2weeks ago) and have notice some yellowing of the inner needles. I’m hoping this is just stress from the planting. Live in the Pittsburgh area and have had a good amount of rain. Love this evergreen. Dont want it to die.

    1. margaret says:

      This is the time when they go all gold then brown on the inner needles, yes — as in the article. So whether it was transplated or not this year I would expect to see that happening. It can be dramatic on some plants.

  12. Jon Mclain says:

    Hi, is it normal for the pine to turn brown on the inside after being planted just a couple months. Its growing and looking healthy on the outside. Also is anti fungal spray ok to spray on all shrubs just incase??

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jon. Whether or not they are transplanted, many conifers shed their inner needles as per the article and photos from late summer into fall. I can’t see what yours looks like…but my white pines right now have loads of gold inner needles!

  13. Persephone Szydlo says:

    My Siberian cypress (3) are approximately 3 years old. Up until this I’ve had any problems other than ground moles for which we treat. One of the cypress has turned completely yellow with few green stems struggling. I started pruning back the yellow nearly to ground. Was this a mistake?

    1. margaret says:

      I think you mean Microbiota — a sort of groundcover-like conifer? The straight species, Microbiota decussata, can get dieback and I have lost many branches over the years in my old plants. Very frustrating. There are newer named cultivars like this one that have disease resistance. Do you want to email a photo to awaytogarden [at] gmail [dot] com?

  14. Pamela Baxter says:

    I laughed in delight at this post. We’ve replaced our spruce trees already as they were planted too low and soaking wet at the root. We tried again and had been having such good luck. You wrote my exact words: “panic”, “losing all at once”, “before you call the arborist in” which made the information even more reassuring. Thank you!

    1. margaret says:

      Happy to help, Pamela. Every conifer here right now in October in my Northeast garden looks like “panic” mode! (But isn’t.)

  15. Carolyn Furman says:

    I live among coastal redwoods in California and every September these magnificent trees shed massive volumes of needles. When the wind blows every surface is covered with redwood duff and tiny redwood cones.

  16. Carolyn Roof says:

    Well, that explains the inner dropping of needles/foliage. I knew it was typical but not the why. That meks me feel better. Thank you.

  17. Terry Meyer says:

    Unknowingly, I put put a Cedar tree right near my two mid sized (15′) hawthorns.
    I see no galls on the cedar, but the hawthorn leaves have the tell tale brown/yellow spots.
    Who leaves the garden? the Cedar or the Hawthorns?

  18. Debbie Glen says:

    I just noticed that the Emerald Green arborvitaes that I planted this year are browning in the center. I thought they were all dying due to the dryness we’ve been having. So it was good to read that this might just be part of their life cycle.

  19. Lynda Brent says:

    As a little girl, my father planted about 50 evergreen trees, of all varieties, around our mountain property and cabin in Colorado. I’m nearly 60 now and the trees are doing great. I noticed yesterday the yellow inside of 2 evergreen trees. First I thought an aspen tree was growing right beside the tree due to the yellowing color. It really SCARED me! Thank you for the article. My arborist lives 2 doors down and I’m glad I didn’t have to call him in a panic. I spray every year to keep the pine bark beetle from killing our mini forest around our home and I’m so glad to know this is normal, though I don’t ever remember seeing this happen before.

  20. D&D in northern Alabama says:

    Hi – We have 5 Carolina cypresses across the back of our lot interspersed with Thuja Green Giants, all around 25′ tall. The Carolina cypresses are turning yellow and look sick, the Thujas are fine. Can you suggest what is going on with the Carolina cypresses?

  21. This is something we have to teach over and over in the world of Bonsai when people get Junipers for their first tree. Sumer rolls around and the interior growth begins to dry up and turn brown and the panic sets in. We usually tell them if its on the inside dont worry, if it is turning brown from the tip back then you have an Issue with your Bonsai . Regards

  22. Linda Pitra says:

    Would you consider doing a segment on rose rosette disease? As you may know it is hitting all varieties of roses nationwide. I am a member of the Centerport garden club (Long Island) and the chair person responsible for maintenance of the historical Vanderbilt rose garden. Upon taking on the responsibility in 2019 we identified the incurable disease (mites). Very long story short, with about a 75 percent infestation, we had to pull out all roses and wait two years before replanting. The good news is, with funding and cooperation with the museum, we’ve taken on what became an amazing community project. We designed and are developing a sustainable organic garden. Since RRD only affects roses, we have been busy this year planting beneficials and companion plants leaving space for about 40 roses to go in next spring. In addition, the museum got busy repairing the beautiful fountain and we purchased a custom arbor and trellises to support newly planted climbing hydrangeas.

    Okay I’m going on and on. I’d just like the problem of RRD to be made aware across the country. I’m surprised how little is know out there.assuming you are always looking for subjects to address, this one is a good one!!

    P.s. I enjoy your Sunday morning email and read it on my phone before getting out of bed and hitting my days work in the garden.

  23. Louis Rieke says:

    Dear Landlord,
    A timely column and most informative.
    Your “tenants” might prefer to be called “lessees”.
    Thank you.

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