Why Do Christmas Tree Needles Turn Brown? (4 Reasons!)
Christmas trees are commonly known to be evergreen. But the truth is, not all of them are! This is just one of the reasons why their needles turn brown. So check each of them to see which is the most likely cause of brown needles!
Christmas tree needles turn brown as a result of natural needle shedding, disease, insufficient water, and pests. Brown needles can be prevented and controlled by giving the tree adequate water, placing it in the right area, and pruning it.
Most of us probably agree that you can’t properly celebrate Christmas without an evergreen tree. But what do you do if it starts turning brown? Don’t worry! Here’s a compilation of all the reasons why the needles are turning brown and how you can handle it!
1. Natural Needle Shedding
Christmas trees naturally shed their needles every year. It’s common to see uniform browning on the oldest inner needles of the tree every autumn. American larches, dawn redwoods, and bald cypress trees are deciduous and turn brown every year.
If your tree is turning brown from inside despite being completely healthy, don’t worry! Although most Christmas trees are evergreen, it’s normal for old needles to turn brown and fall off every year.
Even if your tree is evergreen, this doesn’t mean the leaves will stay on the tree forever. This needle loss is completely normal and is commonly seen during autumn and sometimes winter.
The oldest needles are the ones closest to the trunk of the Christmas tree. If the tree is not showing any other symptoms besides browning, this could be a natural occurrence.
Each evergreen has its own schedule. Spruces have needles with the longest lifespan and will only drop every 5 years. Arborvitaes and Douglas firs typically shed every 2 and 4 years.
Plus, there is such a thing as deciduous conifers. The needles of these trees will turn brown and shed every year before growing back in the spring, just like a regular tree! Some examples include bald cypress, dawn redwood, and the American larch or tamarack.
In short, this annual browning of needles is no cause for alarm. Christmas trees may be magnificent but remember that they are still plants and must shed their older leaves eventually.
But what if the browning starts to spread to the outer needles? That, on the other hand, can be a problem.
Purple-brown needles can be a sign of a fungal disease known as needle cast. This is typically seen in spring and summer, worsening over time when left untreated. Apply fungicides and remove infected needles in the Christmas tree to treat needle cast.
One of the most common needle diseases to affect coniferous trees would be Rhizosphaera needle cast. This frequently happens in spring or summer when the increase in moisture and humidity helps the Rhizosphaera fungus spread.
Blue spruce trees are the most susceptible to Rhizosphaera needle cast.
Christmas trees with infected needles will be yellow at first before becoming purplish-brown. This can be seen on individual needles before it spreads to the rest of the branch.
When you’re unsure, you can always send samples to your nearest plant disease clinic to help you confirm. But keep in mind that time is essential.
If you suspect your tree has needle cast, try to remove old leaf litter at the bottom of the tree to prevent any remaining fungus from spreading. Infected tree limbs can be removed as well.
For severe infections, it’s best to spray the tree with a fungicide specifically made for needle cast disease. This won’t cure the infected needles, mind you, but it will help protect the healthy ones!
It can take years for a bare evergreen to appear full again. So if you plan to use this tree for the holidays, you might have to think about grabbing another tree.
3. Insufficient Water
Christmas trees that are not watered regularly will become brown and brittle. Underwatered trees with brown needles are likely to die or catch fire and must be avoided. Keep tree adequately watered to prevent brown needles.
Check the roots or the base of the tree. Are the roots healthy? Is the tree being given enough water? If not, the needles will lose water and become dry.
If you have a container-grown Christmas tree, its roots may not be absorbing enough water. The same goes for pre-cut trees. Misting does not help prevent an underwatered Christmas tree from drying out.
Not only are they less pleasant to look at, but these dry evergreens are also much more likely to catch fire.
Neglected Christmas trees deprived of water for just a week can quickly go up in flames in just 25 seconds.
I’ll share with you later in this article how to properly water Christmas trees and keep them green, so be sure to keep reading!
But if the tree feels brittle, has not been watered for a week, and is turning brown all over, it’s safer to just get another tree.
This might be irritating, especially when you’ve spent more than enough money. But it’s better to spend a little extra for a fire-safe and healthy tree than pay the devastating price of a housefire.
The two main pests that frequently cause brown needles in Christmas trees are spruce spider mites and midges.
Another reason a Christmas tree might turn brown is because it’s pest infested. But detecting them can be tricky, especially when most of these buggers are so small.
Keep reading forward to identify if your Christmas tree is suffering from pests!
1. Spruce Spider Mites
Needles that are stippled or turning yellow and brown may be due to spruce spider mites. Inspect discolored foliage by striking the branch against a white paper to look for mites. Infested Christmas trees can be treated with pesticide
When it comes to pests for evergreen and coniferous trees, spruce spider mites are one of the usual offenders. Although they’re typically found on spruce trees, they also attack other evergreens.
Heavily damaged leaves will start to turn yellow and brown. The discoloration might be irregular but can be found on the oldest needles by the tree’s base.
Keep an eye out for the tell-tale webbing of these troublesome pests. It can take months for the damage to show, and by then the infestation will be too great. This can be unfortunate if you wanted to plant the tree.
Branches with discolored leaves can be struck against some white paper to see if any mites fall off. The mites are tiny but you should be able to see them against a light background. Their bodies can be green with two black spots or reddish brown with elongated legs.
It’ll likely need repeated applications, but you can use a pesticide specifically for spruce spider mites to eliminate them.
Here’s an effective yet budget-friendly pesticide you can use to get rid of spider mites!
Brown and yellow needles can be a sign of midge infestation in Christmas trees. Infected needles can look similar to purple-brown needles, but will be striped and have a sharp bend where the larvae have eaten the needles from the inside. Pesticide is the best way to prevent and control midges.
Flies known as midges can also cause Christmas tree needles to turn brown. Although they’re about the size of a mosquito, they can cause severe damage by producing larvae that bore into needles.
Needles damaged by midges will be yellow at first. But over time, they will darken. Douglas firs are a regular victim of midges.
The damage done by midges can easily be mistaken for needle cast; however, you’ll find that midge-infested needles will bend easily. The discoloration will also appear striped where the larvae have hollowed out the needles to feed.
Pesticides can be handy in eliminating midges but this can take several weeks to control. But try to avoid using aerosol sprays, as they can be harmful to breathe in! Their fumes can easily be inhaled and can be damaging to the lungs, so watch out.
Learn more about bugs on Christmas trees and how to safely remove them.
3 Ways to Keep Christmas Tree Needles Fresh and Healthy
Green Christmas tree needles can be preserved by providing them with sufficient water, placing the tree in the right place, and pruning discolored foliage.
Dehydrated, brown trees aren’t the most cheerful thing to see during the holidays. Luckily, there are ways to keep Christmas trees healthy and treat their brown needles.
Let’s go over these useful tricks!
1. Provide Sufficient Water
To prevent brown needles, keep the tree properly watered. Water potted Christmas trees whenever the top 2 inches of soil is dry. Cut trees absorb a gallon of water per day and must constantly be left in the water to stay fresh for a month.
This is probably the best way to ensure your tree stays healthy for as long as possible.
Container-grown trees with roots must be watered at least once a week or whenever the top 2 inches (5.08 cm) of the soil is dry.
Live trees that are cut and do not have any roots must also be given water as soon as possible. Remember, just like cut flowers, it is still a live plant that needs water.
Pro Tip: To prevent the cut ends of Christmas trees from drying out, wrap them in a wet towel to help keep them damp until you get home.
Once you arrive home, get that Christmas tree in some water!
Make sure the cut tree always has plenty of clean water. The water level should always be around 3 inches above the tree’s base. Unless you want brown needles, never let the tree dry out.
Read more in our article on What To Do When Christmas Trees Won’t Drink Water
By following these methods, you should be able to enjoy a healthy Christmas tree for at least a month!
2. Place the Tree in the Right Place
Avoid placing Christmas trees in intensely hot areas. Excessive heat exposure can cause the needles to dry out faster and turn brown. To keep the needles fresh, place the tree in the corner of a living room away from direct sun, vents, or fireplaces.
Another way to keep evergreens fresh is to keep the tree away from heat sources. It might look dashing next to your fireplace, but this unnecessary heat will only dehydrate your Christmas tree.
Remember, Christmas trees are essentially gigantic flowers; they must be preserved. To enjoy its beauty for as long as possible, keep it away from wood stoves, vents, and sunny windows.
The corner of a living room is one of the best places to keep a Christmas tree.
The goal here is to try to keep it in an environment that draws the least amount of moisture out of its needles. Not only will it help the needles stay fresh, but it will also reduce the chances of the tree catching fire!
Pruning brown Christmas tree needles can help improve its appearance and make it look fresh. However, this method is superficial and is ultimately best for trees with mild discoloration and will not save dead trees.
Last but not least, let’s talk about pruning. If you don’t plan on keeping your tree and the damage isn’t too bad, you can trim off the brown and scraggly needles to help maintain its look.
With gloved hands, you can carefully go through the whole Christmas tree and remove all the dead branches and discolored needles. But whatever you do, avoid cutting off that top part of the tree as this will ruin the classic, cone-like shape.
This method is ideal if you don’t want to replace the tree and is great for a quick fix.
However, it will only enhance the tree if it still has plenty of healthy needles. As you can imagine, pruning will not fix the tree if it’s already brittle and dead.
If the Christmas tree is badly damaged, it’s best to grab another one. Even if the new tree is too big, you can trim it down to size!
Explore more in: What To Do When A Christmas Tree Is Too Tall?
Can Christmas trees grow back lost needles?
If a live tree with roots loses its needles, the tree can grow new foliage. But because evergreens typically go dormant in the winter, the tree will only produce new needles by spring or summer. Cut Christmas trees, however, cannot generate any new needles and will eventually die.
How do you know if a Christmas tree is dying?
Dying Christmas trees can be identified by excessive needle loss, dead and brittle needles, and darkened plant tissue. Neglected and dying Christmas trees should not be used inside the house, as they are overly dry and more likely to catch fire.
Summary of Brown Christmas Tree Needles
Diseases, underwatering, and pests such as spruce spider mites and midges can all cause Christmas tree needles to turn brown. It is also possible for the needles to become brown due to the tree’s natural shedding of leaves, which typically happens every fall.
Brown needles can be prevented by placing the Christmas tree in an area free from intense heat and by watering the tree regularly. Pre-cut Christmas trees absorb a gallon of water per day and can last a month if given proper care. Pruning can help remove discolored foliage but cannot save dying or badly damaged trees.
- “Evergreen Needles Don’t Last Forever” by John E. Woodmansee in Purdue University
- “Why are my evergreens losing their needles?” by Gretchen Voyle in Michigan State University Extension
- “Why are my Douglas firs turning brown?” by Dennis Fulbright in Michigan State University Extension
- “Adults of Douglas fir needle midge have begun emerging” by Jill O’Donnell and Howard Russell in Michigan State University Extension
- “12 Days of Experts: 9 Tips for Keeping a Christmas Tree Fresh, 4 Trees You Should Know” by Kurt Knebusch in The Ohio State University
- “How to care for a living Christmas tree” by Richard Hentschel in University of Illinois
- “Seasonal Safety: WPI Fire Protection Engineering Researchers Show the Dangers of a Dry and Neglected Christmas Tree” by n/a in Worcester Polytechnic Institute