White Pine experiencing fall needle drop.  Why Your Evergreens Lose Needles in the Fall.

Why Your Evergreens Lose Needles in the Fall


We’ve reached the time of year where we enjoy autumns radiant reds, brilliant oranges, luminous yellows, and the yellowing of evergreen needles.  This shouldn’t cause a panic or create any fear that you may lose your evergreen.  It is merely the natural progression of all plants, even those that hold on to their foliage.

Why is my evergreen dropping its needles?

Like deciduous trees, conifers — a tree that bears cones and is typically evergreen — will lose at least some of their inner needles every year.  The old needles drop from the inner part of the plant and is a normal part of the plant’s life cycle.  

Yellow needles shedding in fall on white pine.

How often do evergreens drop their needles?

Different species will shed at different stages.  While some species may take five or more years before they drop their old needles, other species take only one year.  The departure of foliage is most dramatic, if not somewhat frightening, on Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus).  The needles these pines shed every year are 3 to 4 years old.  

Straw colored needles on the inner branches of a White PIne with healthy green foliage at the end of the branches.

What does a typical fall needle drop look like?

Typical fall needle drop occurs on the inner foliage of the plant.  These inner needles will turn yellow first and then change to a deep, straw-colored hue, and lastly, turn brown and drop.  During this drop, the needles that are at the end of the branches will stay green and new growth will appear the following spring.

Brown inner foliage of Emerald Arborvitae fall needle drop with green foliage at the tips of the branches.

What if the needles at the end of the branch are brown?

Needles with brown tips could be a result of drought or winter desiccation caused by low soil moisture, freezing temperatures, or windburn.  If your conifer has yellowing foliage through-out the entire plant, you may have a pest, disease, or root problem that needs to be addressed.  

Feathery deciduous foliage of Bald Cypress on branch with cone.

Are all conifers evergreen?

No.  Some conifers will drop all foliage every fall.  These are called deciduous conifers.  Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum) and Weeping Larch (Larix decidua ‘Pendula’) are two common deciduous conifers in the St. Louis area.

The loss of some evergreen foliage is more dramatic than others.

Even typical evergreens will experience foliage drop.  Three plants that tend to be alarming to homeowners because of the broadleaf foliage are Rhododendron, Holly (Ilex), and Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora).  

Rhododendron drops their old, inner foliage every 1 to 2 years.

Holly will drop their inner foliage every year as well.  However, they drop their old foliage in the spring as the new growth appears.  

Bracken Brown magnolia at garden center in a 15-gallon container.

Southern Magnolia is quite dramatic in its leaf drop.  This large-leafed tree drops its inner foliage in the spring when most other plants are just coming out of dormancy.  This leaf drop can leave a young tree practically bare, but new foliage will occur at the tips of the branches in the early summer.

Although conifer and evergreen foliage drop can seem extreme at times, it’s perfectly normal.  As long as they show new growth the following spring, then all is well in your landscape. 

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