Conifers Fall color

Yellowing Conifers Needles: Not Always a Problem

Yellowing needles on eastern white pine.

By Larry Hodgson

Often gardeners are worried when they see needles of their conifers turn yellow in the autumn and drop off the plant. After all, aren’t conifers supposed to be evergreen?

Well, sort of…

Deciduous Conifers

Larch in yellow fall coloration.
Larches lose all their needles in the fall. Photo: sergei_spas, pixabay

First, let’s eliminate from this discussion the conifers that lose all their needles in the fall and from which even beginning gardeners expect nothing less, a very small group that includes larches (Larix spp.), bald cypresses (Taxodium spp.) and the dawn redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides). 

Evergreen Conifers

The vast majority of other conifers are indeed “evergreen.”

However, conifers are evergreen in the sense that most keep enough needles through the winter that they seem fully covered, but even so, old needles do fall off throughout the year, mostly abundantly in the fall.

How long needles remain on the plant depends mostly on the species, although environmental conditions are also a factor. In some species, needles last 2 or 3 years, while they remain on the plant for 4 or 5 years in others. The bristlecone pine (Pinus longaeva) has the longest-lasting needles: they can stay on the plant up to 45 years!

Usually old needles turn yellow first, then turn reddish brown before falling, but this varies by species. And since it’s the older needles that drop off, that is those on the inside branches of the tree, the loss is partly hidden, so it’s not something you always notice.

But My Conifer Is Losing More Needles Than Usual!

Before jumping to the conclusion that your conifer is dying, let’s look at the other possibilities. Here they are, more or less in order of probability:

  1. It’s losing a normal number of needles, but you simply never noticed it before. (Many people, possibly even most, are “plant blind”: they don’t much notice plants unless they begin awakening to the nature that surrounds them.)
  2. Your conifer is one of those whose needle drop is naturally quite visible (the various white pines, like Pinus strobus, yellow much more noticeably than other pines in the fall).
  3. It produced more needles than normal 2 years ago (or 3, 4 or 5 years ago) and so when it’s time for the old needles from that year to drop, the sudden loss can be quite striking.
  4. It produced fewer needles than normal during the last year or two and therefore the needle drop is not as well hidden as it usually is.
  5. It recently suffered from some sort of stress. (Anything that increases the stress in a conifer, such as an exceptionally dry or hot summer, will lead to greater-than-usual needle loss.)
  6. It really does have a problem.

Even if you do suspect your conifer really has a problem, generally there is not much you can or should do in the fall, other than watering if the soil is dry. Otherwise, it’s best to wait until spring to decide what should be done (treatments against insects or diseases, fertilizer application, correcting the soil pH, transplanting to a more suitable location, etc.).

And very often in the spring, even though you were sure you had pinned down the needle loss to something important the previous fall, you discover that, ultimately, when the new needles grow in, the plant really didn’t have a problem after all.

Yellowing conifers needles in the fall: they’re usually just a tempest in a horticultural teapot!

Adapted from an article originally published in this blog on October 5, 2016.

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.

3 comments on “Yellowing Conifers Needles: Not Always a Problem

  1. Jessica Crawford

    Thank you for this good information, especially the 5+1 reasons for yellow needles!

  2. Redwoods tend to retain their retired foliage until compelled by weather to shed. I am often questioned about the red, orange or brown foliage within their canopies, since the quantity of such foliage is variable from year to year. Late warm weather without wind cause more of such foliage to be visible for autumn, although this process can happen earlier. Milder weather late in summer delays the process until about now, when the foliage falls at about the same rate that it turns color. Windy weather eliminates more of the foliage. Although there was not much foliar color after the previously mild weather this year, the rainy and slightly breezy weather now is making a mess with all the shedding redwood foliage, and clogging gutters everywhere!

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