Deciduous trees are typically described as ‘trees that lose their leaves during the winter months.’ But did you know some deciduous trees keep their leaves during the winter?
Most deciduous trees either lose all or most of their leaves during the winter. In extreme cases, certain deciduous trees keep all of their leaves during the winter as they go through a longer process of decay. This includes trees like oak, beech, ironwood, hornbeam, witch hazel, and frailejones.
There is an explanation as to why a deciduous tree might not lose all of its leaves during wintertime, and we don’t want to keep you waiting any longer. (Hint: it has to do with a delayed timeline in certain trees.) So, let’s get right into it!
How Do Deciduous Trees Keep Their Leaves During Winter?
There is a term for this, and we want to equip you with it now because it’s something that we are going to reference a lot from here on out!
It is important to understand that the term deciduous is an overarching classification, but that certain species and even individual trees may do things a bit differently.
Marcescence is a term to describe the retention of dead plant organs that are normally shed. The Ohio State University further elaborates on this, saying that to be marcescent is to wither but do not fall off of a plant.
So, marcescence on a tree does not mean that the tree is keeping its leaves in the way that an evergreen would, with healthy and full leaves. Instead, the leaves of a deciduous tree will still go through the cyclical process of decline but will simply remain on the tree itself.
These leaves will appear to be brown and wilted, the same way they would a few days to a week after falling from the tree. Effectively, these leaves are going through a slowed-down version of the decay process while still on the tree.
This does not harm the tree, though. In fact, the reason for this phenomenon actually has the tree’s best interest in mind. More on that in the next section!
Eventually, a deciduous tree is still going to lose its leaves. So, no worries to those of you thinking, ‘well isn’t that the whole point of a deciduous tree, to lose its leaves each year?’
You’d be right! A deciduous tree with marcescence does not simply begin to act like an evergreen and keep its leaves year-round, the leaf dropping period is only delayed to the spring.
Essentially, this entire process is just a delay of the cycle that all deciduous trees go through every year.
With that, we should discuss why deciduous trees might exhibit this marcescence.
Why Might Deciduous Trees Exhibit Marcescence?
There are many ideas surrounding the why of marcescence. The most common of the thoughts is that a tree will keep its leaves into the spring to help protect it to some degree.
If an area is especially dry or windy, or there are different wildlife species that may cause a threat to the ends of the branches that are responsible for a tree’s growth, the likelihood of marcescence becomes higher.
This abnormality does tend to occur in less-mature, or not-yet-developed portions of the tree, which only adds to this theory that leaves remain attached to their branches as an extra layer of protection.
6 Deciduous Trees That Keep Their Leaves During Winter
Now that we know a little bit more about marcescence and what it actually means, it’s worth discussing some different species of trees that fall into this category.
Oak and beech trees are the most common deciduous trees where this retention of leaves in the winter can be seen, but there are also a few other species to note.
White Oaks, specifically, are a tree that most commonly displays marcescence to some degree.
The University of Illinois also notes that shingle oak and pin oak trees are a bit more abnormal than other oaks that display marcescence. These two species are some of the few who continue retaining leaves in the winter as mature trees.
Typically, this is limited to trees that are not yet fully mature, so shingle and pin oaks are even more of an exception to the rule than the other deciduous trees that stray from the common cycle of deciduous trees.
The oak tree’s leaves will shift from the green of summer to red, orange, yellow, or brown in the fall before reaching marcescence. At that point, the leaves will turn into wilted brown attachments on the tree.
Beech trees have foliage that tends to be quite dense and narrow.
This type of tree exhibits marcescence in a way that makes the leaves’ appearance a bit different than that of oak leaves going through the same process.
In beech trees, the leaves will go from a green to a light tan color as opposed to the darker red-brown tone of wilted oak leaves.
Ironwood trees are desert trees that only grow in the southwest United States.
So, it’s safe to say that the marcescence of this tree takes place to protect the tree from especially dry winter conditions.
This tree’s leaves will go from light green to a dark brown, withered-looking shade under the conditions of this leaf retention throughout the winter.
These hardwood trees tend to grow in more temperate regions, where the cause of marcescence is most likely the wildlife that many try to snack on the ends of branches.
Hornbeam trees will see their leaves go from being full and deeply green to withered, essentially rolled upon themselves, and light brown.
You can learn more about hornbeam trees in our article: 6 Best Shade Trees To Plant That Don’t Cause Root Problems!
Witch Hazel Trees
With yellow, fragrant flowers in the winter, witch hazel trees are quite unique, even for this list.
These are most commonly marcescent, with their green summer leaves turning brown alongside the yellow flowers that grow and thrive during the winter months.
While it may be unfortunately difficult to see the pretty yellow winter flowers, this process is still quite normal and healthy for a witch hazel tree.
This tree is more of a shrub and is part of the sunflower family. Native to South America, frailejones (or espeletia, as they are also known) are the final tree on our list today.
In the summer months, their leaves are long and pale green. With marcescence, they turn into shriveled leaves that are more of a greyish tan than a green color.
This is a pretty quintessential desert plant, and frailejones tend to blend in with their landscapes no matter what time of year it is.
Caring For Your Deciduous Trees In The Winter
Now that you know a little bit more about some of the abnormal processes that can take place in the winter when it comes to deciduous trees, it is time to shift gears.
We are going to talk about general maintenance practices that you can follow in the winter to give your tree, with or without marcescence, the best opportunity to grow and flourish.
Following some of these simple steps will allow you to feel confident in your tree-growing practices, and they’re all easy, too!
Keep An Eye On Your Tree
Taking some time to observe your tree is a habit that is hugely beneficial but also widely overlooked.
Especially during the winter months, regardless of whether your tree has lost all of its leaves, it is going to be much easier to notice signs of anything that is out of place.
For example, examining your tree once in a while can be quite a preventative measure.
You may need to trim away some branches or use some other sort of tactic to get rid of bugs, but your tree will bounce back faster and the problem should be able to be managed much more easily than if you caught the issue later on.
Most people tend to notice any issues with their tree at that later stage and will tell you firsthand that they wish they’d kept closer tabs on their tree.
Still Water Your Tree In The Winter
Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean that your tree doesn’t need water!
While this, of course, depends on the climate and region that your tree is living in, it is pretty standard practice to water trees throughout the winter months.
A tree that is not properly hydrated will have to focus more of its energy on keeping things running smoothly and can focus less on the other processes that a tree needs to go through during the winter months.
You don’t need to water your tree very much, especially if there is snow or ice that can seep into the soil around the tree. However, you should keep watering in mind if you are having a warmer winter, or live in a dry but cold area.
If the idea of remembering to water regularly concerns you, fear not! You can use a product like this HIRALIY 98ft Drip Irrigation Kit that will help you to easily space out where the water will go and time the flow so that you don’t need to actively water your tree.
Add Fertilizer To Your Tree
Can you guess what the best fertilizer for your tree is?
Yes- it’s own leaves!
Decomposed leaves can make great mulch or be added to compost piles to be dispersed throughout other parts of your property. Or, they can be left where they are to fertilize the ground on which they fall.
Nature has some pretty sweet processes and this is one of them. Why waste time raking leaves and moving them around when those leaves are actually some of the best, cheapest, most natural fertilizers you could possibly obtain.
What’s better is that the fertilizer from a tree’s leaves has all of the nutrients and elements the tree needs because it comes from the tree itself. Pretty crazy, huh?
Now, if your tree is exhibiting an extra case of marcescence and is not losing those leaves you might still be in the market for a good fertilizer that can help pick up some of the slack.
We should begin by going back to that point about leaves being the perfect fertilizer to nourish a specific tree. What does that mean, exactly?
Well, different trees need different amounts of certain elements and vitamins. A balance of these things that can best support the tree is the overall goal in the end.
So, if you’re looking for a fertilizer that you can purchase and works well on white oak, for example, you’d want to opt for an NPK value of 12-4-8 or 12-6-6.
Wait a minute, what is an NPK value?
If you aren’t familiar, this stands for nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and each number corresponds to the amount of the element that is in a given fertilizer product.
So, an oak tree does best with a lot more nitrogen and a relatively balanced amount of phosphorus and potassium, as long as they are less than the nitrogen, that is.
If you’re looking for a good starter fertilizer that is going to pair well with the majority of trees, you can try these Miracle-Gro Tree & Shrub Plant Food Spikes. These are reasonably priced and come in a 12-pack, so you’ll have some on hand!
Winter Is A Great Time To Prune Your Tree
Although the deciduous trees listed above can display marcescence and keep some, if not all of their leaves during the winter months, winter tends to be the best time to spot any branch-related issues.
What might you be searching for?
You’ll want to observe any dead or overly clustered-together branches that may otherwise be obscured by the fuller, denser leaves of the spring and summer months.
Even if your deciduous tree has not shed all of its leaves, odds are that you’ll still be able to notice some things that you would not see during other times of the year.
It is wise to not try to kickstart the falling process of the leaves, known as abscission. Trees may need some human support from time to time, but a process as natural as this one tends to occur for a reason and should not be interfered with.
If you do have some branches that you find are needing a trim, we suggest trying out the Fiskars 7.9-12 Foot Extendable Tree Pruning Stik Pruner. While shorter, more easily hand-held shears offer successful opportunities for pruning, these longer pruners can make your job a whole lot easier if you are trying to reach those places that aren’t as readily exposed.
That’s All For Now
That’s all we have for you today!
Remember that if your deciduous tree is retaining some of its leaves in the winter, it will still lose them eventually. While you may have to wait for spring for the leaves to fall, they will do so eventually- as all deciduous trees do in the end.
Six of the major types of trees you can expect to see to keep some-to-all of their leaves during the winter are:
- Oak Trees
- Beech Trees
- Ironwood Trees
- Hornbeam Trees
- Witch Hazel Trees
If this occurs on your tree, you are not doing anything wrong and neither is the tree. Sometimes, nature has to go beyond the ‘norm’ to keep working as intended.
With that, we wish you all the best on your personal tree journey. Thanks for sticking with us friends, we’ll see you next time!
If you enjoyed this article, you can check out our other articles about deciduous trees here!
Abadía, A., Gil, E., Morales, F., Montañés, L., Montserrat, G., & Abadía, J. (1996). Marcescence and senescence in a submediterranean oak (Quercus subpyrenaica EH del Villar): photosynthetic characteristics and nutrient composition. Plant, Cell & Environment, 19(6), 685-694.
Angst, Š., Cajthaml, T., Angst, G., Šimáčková, H., Brus, J., & Frouz, J. (2017). Retention of dead standing plant biomass (marcescence) increases subsequent litter decomposition in the soil organic layer. Plant and Soil, 418(1), 571-579.
Shaughnessy, D., & Polomski, B. (2006). Oak.