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Winter Burn: What It Is and How It Affects Different Plants

Mother Nature is unpredictable at times, and even if the calendar says it’s springtime, the temperatures might be closer to winter temperatures. Your plants might end up brown and wilted from the low spring temps; this is called winter burn, and for those of us gardening in North Carolina, it’s a frequent problem in zone 7a. 

It’s not uncommon for gardeners to see winter burn and become concerned. 

Are your plants going to survive? Should you get replacements? What if this happens again?

Good news! Winter burn can be upsetting, but it doesn’t mean your plants will die and need replacing. At Mitchell’s Nursery, we deal with winter burn bothering our crepe myrtles, hydrangeas, and Japanese maples most often. The plants survive; new leaves sprout and replace the dead ones!

Let’s take a look at what winter burn is, some of the common plants it affects, and what you can do to help prevent—or recover from—it.

What is Winter Burn?

Winter burn, often called desiccation, turns the leaves on your plant brown. It typically affects evergreens and is attributed to three main factors:

  • Low soil moisture
  • Freezing temperatures
  • Blowing wind

As you might imagine, these three factors are the perfect recipe for a problem. They cause the plants to lose moisture through transpiration faster than their roots can replace it from the frozen ground. 

Unfortunately, the signs of winter burn might not appear until months after the incident. It presents itself differently in every plant. That might identification tricky. 

3 Signs of Winter Burn

You know that winter burn causes browning leaves, but there are other signs to watch for on your plants as well. Let’s take a look at a few.

  • Leaf Discoloration 

One of the most common signs of winter burn is leaf discoloration. The leaves might appear water-soaked and wilted. The tips of the leaves typically turn brown as well. 

  • Bark Splitting 

Another problem caused by winter burn is bark splitting. This is the splitting of the stem or bark at the base of the plant. It’s crucial to prune split stems and branches, but it might not survive if this occurs at the crown or bottom of the plant. 

  • Frost Cracks 

Frost cracks also happen with winter burns. These are long, narrow, deep cracks that run up and down the tree trunk. These occur because the drastically changing weather causes a fluctuation in a tree’s contraction rates. Frost cracks are most common in Japanese Maple and any other tree with smooth bark. 

How Winter Burn Effects Crepe Myrtles, Hydrangeas, and Japanese Maples

We see winter burn in North Carolina typically affecting these three plants most often. So, let’s look at how winter burn affects each of these plants to help you identify the problem.

Crepe Myrtles and Winter Burn

Crepe myrtles suffer most due to cold damage. Plants require adequate time to adjust to the change in temperatures, so when it happens rapidly, cold damage appears. It’s not uncommon for cold damage to remain on plants for months, reducing the flowering process.

Crepe myrtles typically experience brown leaves because the tree’s roots were unable to absorb adequate moisture. The trees might also shed their leaves, and bark shed takes place as well. As long as the bark is clean, wait until the spring season; your plants will bounce back!

Crepe Myrtle with winter burn (Photo credit: Neil Sperry)
Hydrangeas and Winter Burn

Winter burn affects hydrangeas’ growth, but it doesn’t mean all hope is lost.

Take a close look at your plant. If you have new growth from the bottom side, your plant’s roots are not dead and are viable. Cut all of the deadwood stems and wait for the spring season. 

Come spring, your hydrangeas will grow new leaves from the bottom of the plant. If no leaves appear from the stems, then your buds are dead, and you won’t have blossoms this season, but they should recover over the summer. Don’t forget to feed them, as feeding with a good quality slow-release or organic fertilizer will help their recovery.

Hydrangea with winter burn (Photo credit: Garden Answers)
Japanese Maples and Winter Burn

If your Japanese maples experience freeze damage, the foliage will turn brown, and the leaves might drop off the plant. Branches may also die, but not always.

Typically, Japanese maples with freeze damage will reproduce new buds after two to three weeks if it happens before or during early spring. However, these buds and branches are weaker. It’s recommended that you cut off any damaged portion of your tree if you see any burn on the stems; the main stem will grow a replacement.

Don’t despair; Japanese maples recover from winter burn and freeze damage, but depending on the damage, it can take one year or up to three to five years to erase all of the damage. Continue to take care of your tree, and it will mend itself over time.

Japanese Maple with winter burn

Final Thoughts

Winter burn is a problem if you’re gardening in North Carolina, but the experts at Mitchell’s Nursery see this all the time. Trust us when we tell you that your plants will bounce back. Always take precautionary measures to protect your plants from weather damage, but it doesn’t mean the end of your plants.