3 Reasons Why Your Tree is Losing Leaves Early

Tree leaves are supposed to stay on the branches until they turn color in fall and naturally drop as the tree goes dormant for its annual winter snooze.

But that doesn’t always work out.

Sometimes tree leaves develop spots, shrivel up, turn brown, and even drop prematurely, worrying gardeners that their tree has died instead of gone dormant.

The good news is that disfigured, damaged, and dropped leaves don’t necessarily mean a tree is doomed. As long as the roots and woody parts of the tree are intact, there’s a good chance that a leaf-troubled tree will produce a new and healthy round of foliage next spring.

3 issues that can cause early leaf drop:

1. Leaf disease

Fungi – and occasionally viruses and bacteria – can attack tree leaves and cause them to discolor and drop. Most leaf diseases thrive in the warm, wet, and humid growing conditions of summer.

The bright side is that the roots and branches often are unaffected, meaning the resources are in place to grow a new set of leaves next spring.

The downside is that disease spores can overwinter, meaning reinfections can occur when weather conditions are ripe. While trees can usually overcome a few bouts of early leaf drop, repeated drops can sap energy and ultimately kill a tree.

Getting rid of fallen diseased leaves can help, as can watching for repeat infections and treating as needed before widespread damage happens.

2. Bugs

Assorted caterpillars, Japanese beetles, leafminers, webworms, aphids, lace bugs, whiteflies, and many other bugs are all capable of severely damaging tree leaves.

Some bugs chew leaf tissue. Others suck the chlorophyll and cause discoloring or mottling. If the damage is severe enough, trees may shed the now-useless leaf remnants.

The saving grace is that leaf-attacking bugs don’t harm twigs, branches, trunks, and roots, leaving the infrastructure for new leaves next year.

Monitor more closely next year to decide on anti-bug action if new damage recurs.

3. Weather

Late-spring freezes can damage or kill tender young leaves that “thought” the coast was clear to open at the front end of the season. Fortunately, most trees have a backup set of leaf buds that will grow to replace the damaged first set.

In-season setbacks like hail and wind storms also can damage leaves or blow them off the limbs prematurely. Prolonged hot, dry spells can cause trees to curl their leaves and shed them all together to combat moisture loss while focusing on root survival.

Backup leaves sometimes grow after the insult eases that same summer, but if the leaf loss happens later in the season, regrowth may not occur until the following spring.

The lessons

In general, the later in the season leaf trouble happens, the better trees can recover. That’s because the tree had more time for the leaves to take in sunlight and manufacture energy before they were lost.

Regrowth is much more likely for broadleaf deciduous trees (ones that naturally lose their leaves each winter) than needled evergreens, such as pines, spruces, firs, and hemlocks.

When needled evergreens turn brown and start losing their needles, they’re usually already dead.

Give a de-leafed tree a chance to rebound. If nothing happens the following season, you can always think replacement then. Either way, resist the urge to cut or remove right away.

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