Western red cedar leaves

Western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Luke McGuff photo.

Sometimes clients ask our staff, “What’s wrong with my cedar (or pine or fir)?! It’s dropping its needles!”

Most frequently, the answer is “Nothing.” This is a natural condition.

Every fall and especially after exceptionally dry summers, some evergreen trees experience what appears to be an alarming death of leaves or needles. It can occur with western red cedar, pines and other conifer.

What is happening? Despite their name, evergreen needles do not stay green forever. Older, inner leaves (needles) discolor and drop off after one or more years. Some plants shed their leaves slowly over the season; others lose large numbers in the fall.

Should you be concerned?

Your tree’s needle drop may be a natural loss, or there may be a problem. Here are a few things to look for.

  • Observe the timing of leaf drop. Most conifers and evergreens will drop most of their leaves in the fall. Excessive leaf shedding in the spring or summer months may indicate a problem.
  • Check the pattern of leaf drop. Healthy trees drop only older leaves, those closest to the trunk away from the tip of a branch. If a whole side is dropping leaves or entire branches are turning brown, the plant may be suffering from a pest, disease or cultural problem.
  • Check the color of the newest leaves at the tips of branches. If the tips of needles or leaves are brown, the plant is drought stressed. This may explain the leaf drop.
  • If you are unsure about a plant’s health, give In Harmony a call. Our technicians are trained to recognize natural needle drop and distinguish it from more alarming plant problems.

Reference: Landscape Plant Problems: A Pictorial Diagnostic Manual. Byther, R.S., Foss, C.R., Antonelli, A.L., Maleike, R.R., and Bobbitt, V.M. Washington State University Cooperative Extension, 2000.

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