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Fall Needle Drop in Conifers (09/13/18)

During autumn, deciduous trees like green ash and linden change color and lose their leaves. This is normal and expected. It happens every year and people are used to it. When needles of evergreen trees turn brown and die, it’s definitely unexpected, but not necessarily abnormal.

Fall Needle Drop in Conifers

During autumn, deciduous trees like green ash and linden change color and lose their leaves. This is normal and expected. It happens every year and people are used to it. When needles of evergreen trees turn brown and die, it’s definitely unexpected, but not necessarily abnormal. 

There are several species of evergreens or conifers that are frequently grown in North Dakota. Pines and spruces are most common. These needles live for 2 to 7 years, and then die and drop during the fall. These are the older needles towards the center of the tree. Spruce needles usually live longer than those of pines, and may persist for up to 10 years. Just like pines, though, the needles which are older and more shaded may turn brown and drop during autumn. Even arborvitae trees and shrubs will sometimes shed older needles in the fall.

So, some needle drop by conifers during the fall is normal. The exception to this rule occurs with larch trees (also called tamarack). Larch trees lose all of their needles, every year. They are deciduous “evergreens”. Larch needles are 1 to 2 inches long and borne in clusters on short shoots, and individually on long shoots. They are very soft. Larch needles often turn a bright yellow color. 

Evergreen needles don’t last forever. Some needle loss towards the center of the tree, during the autumn, is normal. Needle loss at other times of the year is not normal and may be due to an insect or fungal pest or is the result of severe environmental stress. And larch trees, the exception to the rule, lose all of their needles every year.  Enjoy the colors this fall.

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Joe Zeleznik

Extension Forester

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