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Winter Conifer Desiccation: Waiting out the Results

cypress, conifer
Cupressus glabra ‘Raywood’s Weeping’


All I had to do was to read the Farmer’s Almanac, and I would have prepped my conifers for the winter of 2014. I would have anticipated frigid temps and massive snows. But I didn’t. Then came Hell to my conifers. They burned as if consigned to the relentless fires of winter’s winds and sun.

Winter desiccation came to conifers in the ground, as well as those same cultivars in decorative containers. The grip of the Avenging Angel did not get all of them, but those which were hit, were hit hard. Cupressus glabra ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ looked fine until the temps moderated. Then the brown occurred, down to the lowest branches. My container ‘Raywood’s Weeping’ looks as bad as the garden tree, which, by the way, has been flourishing in the ground for four years. The latter is on the northeast side of the house, protected from the winds and even the sun. But not the cold.

evergreen trees, conifers
Abies pinsapo with winter damage


Abies pinsapo (Spanish fir) has lived protected, both in containers and location, ever since they made their way east from the 2011 Portland national meeting. But, as you can see from the photos, they burned. In the same area of the house, on the northeast-facing deck of the house. Cedrus atlantica, Atlas blue cedar, took a beating.  There are buds, but only time will tell if they will bud out and produce new foliage. My Cedrus deodara ‘Hillside’ was also deemed “safe” by me. After all, the newest USDA Zone maps declared my area of Michigan close to Zone 6. However, as you can see from the plant’s damage, it is less than marginal to my Zone.

pine tree, conifer
Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’ looking more like a firestorm!


Pinus thunbergii ‘Thunderhead’ has grown in my garden for the past four years. It bore the past few winters and never flinched. Now, as you can see, it has suffered. I have been told that it might come back. The buds look and feel viable. The rest of the plant is sad. My Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’, veterans of several winters since 2009, have before gone brown only to return to their multi-colored needles in early summer. Right now they appear damaged.  Even Cupressus nootkatensis cultivars, used to the environment at my house since 2002, have tinges of winter burn.

pine trees, conifers
Pinus densiflora ‘Golden Ghost’. I’m renaming it ‘Burnt Toast’!


Despite all the winter woes, which conifers seemed undaunted by the arctic vortices? My numerous Pinus heldrechii cultivars, to the letter, closed their needles to cover their candles and thumbed their noses at the winter of 2014. Pinus strobus ‘Christopher’, all of my junipers, all of my eastern white pine cultivars, all of my Douglas firs, all of my Picea pungens (Colorado blue spruce) and my Pinus densiflora (Japanese red pine) other than the sad ‘Golden Ghost’ — all came through.

Only Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fraseri’, of all my Hinoki cypresses, survived unscathed by winter desiccation. I have three: one in a container on my NE deck (green and lovely), one on a NW-facing deck (green-green), and one protected by the solid railing of a deck (peeked, but not burned).

Hinoki false cypress, conifer
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Confucius’. I’m trying to be philosophical…


Should my burned conifer cultivars in containers survive and push new growth, they will reside this coming winter on the NW side of the house. They will be wrapped in burlap if they are in the ground and away from the protection of the house, or if they are marginal to Zone 5.

Cedrus deodara ‘Hillside’ was hit hard.


It is now a waiting game to see which of my damaged conifers will survive the worst winter in my neck of the woods since 1978. After all, I have heard from several corners of the scientific and environmental worlds that global warming brings swings between massive snows and freezing temps, wet cool springs and hot dry summers. It is, indeed, a waiting game.   What did other Midwesterners or Easterners observe in your gardens this winter?

10 comments to “Winter Conifer Desiccation: Waiting out the Results

  1. Tom Joswick commented

    Ouch. Same thing I see here. Watch the buds on your ‘Thunderhead’, there may be hope. They are quick to burn, but the the buds have more staying power than some might think…maybe. My P. densiflora ‘Little Christopher’ looks like your ‘Golden Ghost’ and mine is 15 years old. Again, its all in the buds.

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  2. Ron Elardo commented

    Winter damage also occurred on conifers I had been storing in my unheated garage. This is not the first time I have done this. This year was bad though. I have lost a Sequoiadendron giganteum ‘Pendulum’, Ch. obtusa ‘Cristata’, a Pinus sylvestris.

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  3. michaellarned commented

    Ron, very sorry to see this! Any word on how the Harper Collection came through the winter? Here in Connecticut we are just beginning to notice subtle damage here and there. Our Cedrus ibani has a general grayish pallor to it and we have noticed some damage to Cedrus deodara. I don’t think we have experienced this severe (cold plus snow) a winter in CT since the late 1970’s. The one saving grace was a total lack of freezing rain and ice storms.

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  4. Wynne Keller commented

    Ron, that is sad to see, I can imagine your pain all too well. We’ve all been there. Maine is still just shedding the blanket of snow, a foot on the ground now, so I await developments.

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  5. Ron Elardo commented

    Michael, sorry for getting back to you so late. I have been out surveying the damage up close and checking the buds. My ‘Hillside’ is full of viable buds. I hope that means a recovery. It was so strange how the damage hit random trees. I have two ‘Gold Mops’ which were untouched. The Norways all look great. We too were saved from freezing rain/ice storms.

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  6. Ron Elardo commented

    Hi Wynne. It is depressing and it is my first winter damage. The trees which were buried in snow (78″ total) made it through just fine. I hope that, when the snow melts, your plants will be fine. Let me know, please.

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  7. elizabeth56 commented

    So, I am looking at the pictures of what mother nature has done to our plants, and mine look very similar. What is everyone going to do about it? Are you going to chop them down, wait and pray for the Lazarus effect, or trim off the dead and dying. I have 18 conifers with severe damage. My concolor is terrible. “Bowling Ball” an “Teddy Bear” are little balls ready to self-combust, they are so brown. What to do?

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  8. Ron Elardo commented

    Hi Stu. Good to hear from you. Every last one of the damaged conifers died which suffered winter burn. I had three burn piles the size of a mini-van. I never bothered to assess the dollar amount loss. I was shaken. Trees even died months after the summer, months after budding out.

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