Conifers Gardening Pruning Staking plants

Repairing a Headless Conifer

Spruce whose top part has died.

By Larry Hodgson

Many conifers have a naturally pyramidal shape. This is the case of, among others, firs (Abies), spruces (Picea), pines (Pinus) and larches (Larix). They’re called whorl-branched conifers, because a whorl of new branches appears near the stem tip each spring. They all have a main trunk topped off by a single terminal shoot called the leader. As long as the leader is healthy, symmetry is maintained. This is called apical dominance.  

Pine with top broken off.
The top of this pine was broken off by accident and it will probably need some help if you want it to retain its symmetry. Photo: extension.umn.edu

But if the tree loses its leader, and that can be caused by insects, disease or physical damage, its future symmetry is threatened. Fortunately, that’s something you can fix. And there are two ways of going about it.

Damaged fir producing four leaders.
Four leaders have started to grow on this fir. To renew its symmetry, you should remove all but one. Photo: laidbackgardener.com

The first technique simply starts out by allowing the tree to grow on its own. Since whorl-branched conifers only put on new growth in spring, you may have to wait until the following spring to see what happens. Typically, the conifer will then produce not only one terminal shoot near where the old one was lost, but two or more. Or sometimes side branches near the top start to grow vertically and thus start to become leaders. Typically, there are also usually two or more.

Since, for symmetry’s sake, you can’t allow your conifer to produce multiple leaders, you’ll have to make a choice. Pick whichever new leader appears the strongest and remove all the others. By doing so, you’ll restore apical dominance and the conifer will resume its expected symmetrical growth.

You can attach a side branch to a stake and turn it into a leader. Ill.: Claire Tourigny

The other method is to be proactive. As soon as you realize the leader is dead, broken or missing, choose a side branch and direct it upward. You can do this by fastening the branch to the stub (if there is one) with twist ties. If there is no stub, simply attach a stake to the trunk and fix the side branch to it so it remains upright. It will quickly come to dominate the other branches and react like a leader (terminal shoot).

When this new leader has lignified enough to hold its shape, usually 3–8 months later, just remove the ties and the stake. Apical dominance will have been restored and the tree will then resume its attractive pyramidal growth pattern.

Article originally published on July 12, 2015.

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

7 comments on “Repairing a Headless Conifer

  1. Are leaders necessary for purely aesthetic reasons? Anything wrong, from a tree health POV, in having two or more leaders?

    • Having more than one stem sometimes (but not always) leads to breakage in future years. Two tops are not as sturdy as one. And in the wild, the tree is slower growing and less able to compete. But then, some trees get along fine for decades with two heads!

  2. I did this successfully with a Kousa Dogwood. I was so happy with the way it looked. Then a deer came by and ate the top off. Oh well, at least I knew what needed to be done again. 🙂

  3. many years ago family had a 250 acre Christmas Tree Farm in North Carolina, USA.
    They had to do this very thing to some of the trees, it works well.

  4. They all have such distinct personalities. Redwoods have no problem generating new tops, and if they produce a few, they are rather efficient at shedding all but one. On rare occasion, they get two tops, which can be a structural concern. Douglas firs recover either poorly or quite well, without much in between. Unfortunately, redwoods, Douglas fir and ponderosa pine, the three main conifers here, are hundreds of feet tall. Even babies are out of reach.

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