The Purdue Plant and Pest Diagnostic Laboratory

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May 14, 2014

Leaf Scorch and Dieback Observed on Boxwoods

Gail Ruhl, Senior Plant Disease Diagnostician, Purdue University.

Winter injury comes in many forms. Temperature fluctuation and desiccation are responsible for much of the foliar discoloration and dieback observed this spring on boxwoods and other broad-leaved evergreens including holly, mahonia, and rhododendron species.

Winter desiccation (drying out or winterburn) of foliage commonly occurs on broad-leaved evergreens growing in both wind-swept and sheltered locations. Water evaporates from the leaves on windy or on warm sunny days and cannot be replaced when the water in the soil is frozen and unavailable to the plant roots.

Damage to broad-leaved evergreens and other woody ornamentals can also occur from multiple types of winter-related injury. Sudden temperature fluctuations during winter months, excessive or late season fertilization causing delayed hardening off/delayed tissue dormancy, lack of snow cover/cold temperature injury, and late spring frosts contribute to winter injury.
Plants vary in their susceptibility to winter injury, and factors such as plant age, species, exposure, soil type, location, and individual genetic variation will all affect the degree of damage a particular plant will experience.   Winter injury can appear as stem or trunk cracks, foliar discoloration (purpling, browning, yellowing , bleaching), and/or twig and branch dieback. Often the effects of winter injury do not show up immediately, thus complicating accurate diagnosis of a specific causal factor. Secondary or opportunistic diseases on Boxwood such as Macrophoma leaf spot,  Volutella Blight and Botryosphaeria canker may colonize injured plant tissue.
While there is no cure for the physiological disorders caused by winter injury and desiccation, cultural practices that conserve soil moisture, prevent root or stem damage, and promote hardening off prior to winter may help:

  • Select an appropriate site for planting and maintain shrub vigor by good cultural practices
  • Deep water shrubs before the ground freezes in the fall and mulch around the base of the shrub to provide and maintain sufficient moisture in the root zone
  • Fertilize at the proper time and rate; avoid late summer and early fall fertilization which encourages growth that does not harden off properly
  • Prune out dead or dying branches or twigs in spring
  • Construct physical barriers such as windbreaks to minimize drying winds

The Morton Arboretum offers a comprehensive description of several types of winter injury:

Key diagnostic differences between winter injury and boxwood blight are described in the following article.

Boxwood blight has not yet been detected in Indiana.

Plant samples may be submitted to our lab for diagnosis. There is an $11.00 sample handling fee. Please refer to the following website for additional information about our lab and submission details.






Click image to enlarge

Winter injury on Boxwood




Purdue Plant & Pest Diagnostic Lab Purdue Cooperative Extension Service