Hang on to your hats — Mother Nature is playing some tricks us on us this winter. Despite Punxsutawney Phil seeing his shadow, indicating a prolonged winter, it’s been practically balmy in Central Oregon.
And that’s tricked your plants and trees into thinking it’s time to grow, as they reach for the sun and hope for some much needed water.
“We are seeing a lot of winter desiccation or winter injury to the evergreens and conifers in Central Oregon. This is where there’s a loss of water through leaf transpiration. Winter sun and winds dry the needles,” said Amy Jo Detweiler, associate professor at Oregon State University Extension Service in Redmond. “The trees come out of their dormancy and need water, but they can’t access water because the ground is still frozen.”
If you’re looking out into your yard right now, Detweiler said, you’re probably noticing your conifer needles and broadleaf evergreens, such as manzanita, are looking quite brown or reddish in color. You may even think they’re dead. But Detweiler cautions not to take out the trees just yet, because odds are good they may come back.
“This conifer is promising, because the tips are still green,” explains Detweiler, examining a young pine tree at the Deschutes County Fairgrounds. “What people need to do is look for the terminal bud, and pop it back, if it’s still green in there, and there’s some resin, it’s still viable.”
Detweiler said she’s been fielding dozens of calls lately from gardeners who are distressed about their “dying trees.” This winter’s unusual temperatures, especially this last period of mild temperatures, is what causes the most injury to plants, she said.
“The winter injury is not generally caused by a cold, snowy winter, but by extreme weather and temperature fluctuations, like this long period of 50- to 60-degree weather. The trees are transpiring and need water, but can’t get it,” Detweiler said. “If you can hand water your trees or plants during the warmer winter weather, this will help.”
Detweiler says the non-native conifers are more vulnerable to winter desiccation, but as she says this, she looks toward a grove of native Western Juniper trees that also show yellowing and browning, and says this native species is also experiencing injury this winter.
The extended autumn we experienced meant most trees were already drought stressed before winter really hit.
“The other problem we have in the High Desert is our soil is very sandy, so the soil doesn’t hold the water very well,” Detweiler said. “The strong winds we had, combined with the long fall, really dries out and stresses the trees. There’s just not enough moisture when we have these 60-degree days in the winter.”
The mild weather can cause some trees to resume growth, making them more vulnerable to injury from another probable snowstorm this spring. Detweiler says to help protect your trees you can wrap them loosely in burlap.
Other tree damage you may see on your maple trees, aspens or white pine in this mild winter is called sunscald.
“This happens to trees on the south side of the trunk,” Detweiler said. “You’ve probably seen the bark darken and become rough, eventually it cracks and falls away.”
Central Oregon is not alone in seeing this winter desiccation; Detweiler said the entire West Coast is having this problem, as the trees are being stressed.
“It really has been the perfect storm for these trees. We had the long fall, prolonged winds and now this warm winter weather,” Detweiler said with a sigh, as she mentioned what this could portend for the fire season this summer. “It’s looking pretty grim throughout the Western United States.”
Still, Detweiler cautions, if you have any doubt about your tree, wait it out.
“It won’t look good, and the needles may be falling out for a while, but by spring you should start seeing some green again.”
— Reporter: firstname.lastname@example.org