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Why Didn't My.....Have Fall Color

Or, “Why did my…..turn brown and look dead so suddenly this fall?” I’ve gotten emails, phone calls and text messages from all over Cape Cod with this question. For many it’s their Japanese maples or Hydrangea shrubs that are in question. But others ask about Viburnum, Weigelia, burning bush, beech trees and other shrubs or trees. Instead of glorious fall color, we’ve gotten brown, shriveled and seemingly dead leaves. Some ask me about what fertilizer they can apply to help in the future. Others wonder if the plants they’ve placed in their yards are just slackers. Good questions all.

First of all, it’s important to know what causes fall color in leaves. Brilliant colors are first and foremost a matter of genetics. If the plant isn’t genetically set to produce brilliant hues in the fall, nothing we do or don’t do will change that. Secondly, know that the colors in foliage are revealed when the green chlorophyll drains from leaves and reveals the reds, oranges and yellows that were there all along. And what signals the plants to drain that chlorophyll is shorter days and colder nights. As the temperatures fall the near-freezing nights, as well as light frosts, hasten the process of chlorophyll draining. At the same time these temperatures help a special layer of cells to form at the base of the leaf that allows the foliage to gradually drop off and fall away.

This didn’t happen for most plants on Cape Cod this year. We had warm, warm, warm temperatures all through October and even through the first week in November. For many in this area, our hydrangeas were still green in leaf and blue/purple in flower on November 6th! I had pepper plants with ripening fruit and Impatiens plants still in flower on November 8th in Sandwich.

But then, we suddenly had two nights where the temperatures fell into the low twenties. This very quickly killed those still-green leaves and short-circuited the usual draining of chlorophyll and formation of the cells that release the leaves. We were left with browned, gray or even black leaves that cling to many shrubs and trees. It’s a double whammy: no fall color and dead-looking foliage that isn’t dropping off.

Eventually these dead leaves will fall away. But know that there is nothing you can do to prevent this from happening in the future. It’s nature in action. Let’s all sit back and enjoy, or at the very least shake our heads, at the wonder of it all.

Your Japanese maple trees might have silver or white leaves instead of the usual red.

Your Japanese maple trees might have silver or white leaves instead of the usual red.

Many Hydrangea shrubs look like they're decorated with dead bats for Halloween!

Many Hydrangea shrubs look like they’re decorated with dead bats for Halloween!

My Weigelia shrubs look dead, although I know it's just the result of the hard freeze after a warm fall.

My Weigelia shrubs look dead, although I know it’s just the result of the hard freeze after a warm fall.

This Full Moon Maple usually turns brilliant red and then slowly drops those colorful leaves...but not in 2017!

This Full Moon Maple usually turns brilliant red and then slowly drops those colorful leaves…but not in 2017! Brown foliage clings to this normally colorful tree on Cape Cod.

The Japanese Maple trees in front of Hyannis Country Garden are typical. Brown, crispy mounds of shriveled leaves.

The Japanese Maple trees in front of Hyannis Country Garden are typical. Brown, crispy mounds of shriveled leaves. They will eventually fall but it might take longer than normal this year.

7 comments to Why Didn’t My…..Have Fall Color

  • Janet Beal

    My hydrangeas looked like they had new buds on them before the sudden frost. Will they bloom next summer? Should I cut them all back now?
    Many thanks,
    Janet Beal
    Janetmbeal@gmail.com

  • Judy wass

    Thanks for the explanation My burning bush did not even emit a flame!
    Always love your right on info
    Judy

  • Mary Finan

    Thanks for this excellent article. I feel better now knowing what happened to my beautiful shrubs and Japanese maple. The leaves have pretty much fallen now and cleaned up.
    Wish you and all at country Garden and very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
    Mary Finan

  • CLFornari

    Janet – we won’t know if these buds will go ahead and make flowers next summer until late-May of next year. But have faith and do NOT cut them back! If you do, you’ll have few to no flowers for sure. So wait until May and then cut off all dead canes, leaving live ones.

  • Ruy

    Thanks for the info

  • Emily Woudenberg

    Thanks for the information and reassurance, CL! I had a small Japanese Maple whose leaves turned brown overnight. I thought it was because “salty winds” had caused the browning, but now I know it was the short-circuiting of the normal process of abscission. The big-leaf hydrangeas looked truly scary!

  • CLFornari

    Glad you liked it, Emily. I have several plants that look scary right now! I have to admit that part of me is tempted to spray one of them gold for the holidays….

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