January and February are typically the coldest months in Florida. Low temperatures can damage even the more cold-hardy plants. However, there are measures that can be done to help cold-damaged plants recover.
After a frost or freeze, see if your plants are dry. Even injured plants need water. Plants can be greatly damaged if the temperature drops suddenly, as they have no time to acclimate to the freezing temperatures. These freezing temps cause ice crystals to form in plants cells. These crystals expand, rupturing the cell walls and preventing the plant from maintaining shape. If severe, this can certainly kill tender plants. On more cold hardy plants, damaged foliage will appear wilted and curled down. In a few hours or days, it will darken and turn black. Flowers, buds, and new growth often dieback under freezing temps.
After freezing temperatures occur, it’s important to remove damaged leaves and flowers as soon as they turn brown or black. This will help prevent diseases from occurring. Pruning should be postponed until cold temperatures are no longer expected and new growth begins to appear on the plant. This practice ensures live wood, which appears dead from losing its leaves, is not mistakenly removed from the plant. Cold damaged wood can be detected by examining the cambium layer (under the bark) of the plant. If it has black or brown discoloration, it is damaged and should be pruned back behind these points. Plants should be fertilized in the spring, to encourage new growth.
Cold damage. Photo Credit: University of Florida/IFAS
What about proactive care? You can accomplish this by moving potted plants indoors and covering tender landscape plants with a protective covering. Protective covering can include old bed sheet, pieces of material or fabric, and cardboard boxes. Be careful not to let the protective covering touch the plants. The surface of the covering will become as cold as the air temperatures and may damage any tender leaves it encounters. Also, don’t forget to remove the covering the next day when temperature raises this is important so the plants do not “bake” in the warmer temperatures. Plants placed near the house, lights, or other structures, which shelter them from wind, will be more protected than those fully exposed to the cold air.
Use frost cloth to completely cover cold sensitive plants. Be sure to make complete contact with the ground and use heavy objects to keep the fabric secure. Photo by Jonathan Burns.
For more information on freeze damage plants contact your local county extension office.
Supporting information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS Extension EDIS publication: “Cold Protection of Landscape Plants”, by Sydney Park Brown: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/mg025
Use frost cloth to completely cover cold sensitive plants. Be sure to make complete contact with the ground and use heavy objects to keep the fabric secure. Photo by Jonathan Burns.
One major aspect that separates North Florida from South Florida is the discrepancies in air temperature. Although the differences are relatively small when comparing Florida with northern states, they can mean a world of difference in the plant world.
Even hardy cauliflower leaves can be damaged by cold winter nights in the Florida Panhandle. Photo by Molly Jameson.
In most of North Florida, our USDA plant hardiness zone is 8b, which means average minimum winter temperatures are between 15 and 20° Fahrenheit (F). We therefore can experience hard freezes, which happens when temperatures are below 28°F for over five hours. These types of conditions are capable of “burning” the leaves of even the toughest winter vegetables.
Fortunately for our winter gardens, average minimum winter temperatures are in the lower 40s, high enough not to damage winter garden crops. When we do have lows close to or below freezing (32°F), there is one very cost-effective method that can help keep crops and landscape plants protected. This is the use of a material called frost cloth.
Frost cloth can moderate air temperatures six to eight degrees. Photo by Turkey Hill Farm.
Frost cloth, which can be purchased at most plant nurseries, is a breathable polyester fabric that is light weight and heat retentive. When used correctly, it can moderate air temperatures about six to eight degrees. This is typically all that is needed to get us through our mild North Florida winters. It is also relatively inexpensive, and if cared for, the same cloth can be used for many winter seasons.
Large blankets or bedsheets can be used as frost cloth substitutes, but whether you are using actual frost cloth, or something pulled from the linen closet, it is very important to use it correctly to be effective. The cloth must touch the ground at all points, as it works by trapping heat that radiates from the soil. It also increases the humidity around the plant, aiding in temperature moderation.
“Lollipop” trees will allow the heat from the ground to escape, giving the tree no cold protection. Photo by Jonathan Burns.
For sensitive landscape plants and fruit trees, it can be more difficult to fully cover the plant with the frost cloth to trap the heat, but it is just as important. When driving around town on a cold night, I inevitably encounter a few “lollipop” trees. This is when the foliage of the tree is wrapped in frost cloth, but the cloth does not reach the ground, and is typically tied off at the upper trunk of the tree. All heat moving upward from the soil will go right around the cloth, giving the tree essentially no protection.
Wire or PVC hoops can be used to help secure frost cloth and keep the cloth from damaging sensitive plant stems and leaves. Bricks, sticks, soil, or garden staples should be used along the perimeter of the frost cloth to prevent nighttime gusts from blowing the cloth off your garden beds or landscape plants. In the morning, remove the cloth once air temperatures reach about 50 to 60°F.
To learn more about cold protection, check out the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, Cold Protection of Landscape Plants (https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/MG025).
Growing Key Limes in the home landscape is not only a fun and unique addition, but is also delicious – any way you slice them.
The key lime, Citrus aurantifolia, originated in southeast Asia. Genetically speaking, the key lime is likely a tri-hybrid cross between the “odd ball fruits”, known as citron, pummelo and a microcitrus species, Citrus micrantha. There is little commercial key lime production nowadays in Florida, but the fruit remains a very popular landscape option.
The key lime is a small, bushy tree that makes harvest and pruning a breeze. Like most citrus, it’s self-pollinating. The key lime is also an ever-bearing fruit, so there is no real seasonal harvest. The tree could technically bloom any month of the year. There are very few varieties, as trees mostly come from true seed or air layering.
Key Lime fruit at various degrees of ripeness. Photo courtesy of Ray Bodrey, UF/IFAS Extension Gulf County.
Climate is an important factor when deciding to plant a key lime. They are sensitive to cold temperatures, especially below freezing. For the Panhandle, it’s wise to keep key lime trees as patio citrus. In other words, keep the trees in pots so that they can be moved indoors for protection during the winter months. In the ground, trees should be planted in an area where there is a significant wind block. Once a few years have passed and tree has become more mature and acclimated to the environment, they may be able to survive on their own, though it is recommended to cover the tree under sub-freezing temperatures. However, it is important to remember that sunlight is a catalyst for citrus fruit production, be sure to plant the tree in an area with full sun.
The usual suspects of citrus insect pests apply to the key lime also. Citrus leaf miner and mites are the most common culprits. Horticultural and insecticidal oils will certainly help to combat these threats. For planting, key lime is well adapted to a variety of soil conditions in Florida. Be sure to water newly planted trees every other day for the first week and then one to two times a week for the first couple of months. Water periodically after that, making sure the soil doesn’t stay completely dry for long periods. A 6-6-6 fertilizer works great for the key lime. Please follow the fertilizer schedule found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Citrus Culture in the Home Landscape” by Robert E. Rouse and Mongi Zekri: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/pdf/HS/HS132/HS132-11822781.pdf
A final interesting thing about the key lime is the ripening stages of the fruit. Because key limes are ever-bearers, blooms can develop at sometimes widely varying times. This causes an uneven development of fruit across the tree. Be sure to wait until the fruit turns begins to turn yellow before harvest. That’s when it’s mature to eat! Fruit can be stored for up to a week in the fridge or can be juiced and stored in the freezer for later use.
Please contact your local county Extension office for more information. Happy Gardening!
Information for this article can be found in the UF/IFAS EDIS publication, “Key Lime Growing in the Florida Home Landscape” by Jonathan H. Crane: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/CH092
UF/IFAS Extension is an Equal Opportunity Institution.
Frost on Dune Sunflower
Picture by: Pam Brown
December is finally here and that means consistent nights of watching for dropping temperatures. Tropical plants and newly installed shrubs are susceptible to cold injury. Those colorful, blooming plants that have added a tropical look to the landscape all summer may begin to suffer when the temperatures drop below 500 F. Leaves may turn yellow and flowering stops. These plants will need to be moved inside or have temporary greenhouse built around them. But, hardy plants that haven’t established a sufficient root system will also need additional attention when the temperatures drop dramatically.
The ability of plants to endure a freeze depends on the species and the weather leading up to the extra cold night. Gradual decreases in temperatures helps plants acclimate to winter. But, a sudden one day drop of 40-50 degrees results in a rapid freeze that causes ice to form inside the plant cells. Leaf and stem tissue expands so quickly that it splits, resulting in parts of the plant incapable of transporting water and nutrients, as well as, performing photosynthesis. However, it may be late the following spring before the damage is noticed, when that section of the plant has slowly staved to death.
Cracked bark from frost
Additionally, plants can experience desiccation or drying out. This happens when dry winds and solar radiation result in the loss of more water from the leaves than can be transported by a cold root system. The resulting symptom is marginal and/or tip burning of leaves that leads to totally brown leaves.
Freezes (when the temperature drops to 320 F) are characterized as radiational or advective. Radiational freezes occur on calm, clear nights when heat radiates from the surfaces of plants, making them colder than the air due to the rapid loss of heat. If there is moisture in the air, ice will also form on the surfaces. Under these conditions, ice forms between plant cells, rather than within the individual cells. Most hardy plants can tolerate these type of freezes if they are properly hydrated.
Advective freezes occur when cold northern winds move in rapidly, dropping temperatures quickly, and causing widespread foliage desiccation. Cultivation and maintenance practices can impact a plant’s ability to endure extended periods of low temperatures. Shade-tolerant species installed under the canopy of a tree typically display less injury from radiational freezes because the trapped heat from the ground and the overhead foliage creates a microclimate. Well-watered soil around a plant will absorb solar radiation during the day and re-radiate heat over night, raising the temperature around the plants. Shrubs that are not pruned in the late summer or fall have leaves that can withstand frost and wind. But, the removal of foliage late in the growing season triggers a flush of new growth, that is very sensitive to lower temperatures. The same response can result from fertilizer applications after plant’s have slowed down in growth.
Irrigation Frost Protection on Citrus
Picture by: Univ of Maryland Extension
So, what can you do to prepare for upcoming freezing temperatures? Begin by avoiding pruning and fertilizing at the end of the season and making sure that the plants have been watered within 24 hours of a cold night. Next, insulate against water loss and increase heat radiation by adding a three-inch of mulch, as well as, covering the trunks of sensitive trees with a commercial tree wrap. Then, consider what needs to be covered. Frost cloth or other breathable fabrics can trap heat for the night and provide a protective layer from frost settling on the leaves. It needs to be placed by mid-afternoon and removed the next day when temperatures are above 320 F. Plastic is not recommended unless the timing regime can be followed reliably and a structure is used under the material to keep the plastic off the foliage. Anchoring of the cover is critically important in the event of an advective freeze.
Finally, turn off the sprinkler system. Commercial agriculture often uses a running irrigation system to keep the leaf surface temperatures near, but not below, 320 F because sprinkling utilizes latent heat released when water changes from a liquid to a solid state. The thin layer of ice melts and re-freezes on the surface throughout the night, without ice forming within the plant tissues. For the technique to work, sprinkling must begin as freezing temperatures are reached and continue until thawing is complete. Landscape systems are not designed to deliver the amount of water over the length of time required to accomplish this type of frost protection.
When the cold nights have passed, don’t forget to check your plants for water. But, wait until winter has passed before pruning out the frost damaged stems.
Article by Dr. Gary Knox, Professor of Environmental Horticulture at the UF/IFAS NFREC Quincy
Rhizomatous begonias are a large group of Begonia species, hybrids and selections characterized by large, sometimes-colorful leaves arising from thick rhizomes that grow along the soil surface. White or pink flower clusters that appear in late winter and spring are an extra bonus with these plants. Some types can be used in north Florida as herbaceous perennials that add bold leaf texture and color as well as flowers to shady gardens.
Begonia mass planting
Common rhizomatous begonias such as Begonia nelumbiifolia, ‘Erythrophylla’ (“Beefsteak”), and ‘Ricinifolia’ have long been grown outdoors in south and central Florida gardens as herbaceous perennials. North of these areas, rhizomatous begonias were considered cold sensitive and thus used strictly as pot-grown plants grown indoors or protected over winter. Nonetheless, north Florida trials testing the performance of outdoor, in-ground plantings started in Tallahassee and Gainesville as long ago as the late 1980s and early 1990s. With the proven success of some rhizomatous begonias in north Florida, interest in these plants increased rapidly in the early 2000s. Since then, savvy north Florida gardeners have been delighted by the possibility of using rhizomatous begonias as interesting herbaceous perennials for the shade garden. While temperatures below freezing can damage or kill leaves, these plants will usually produce new leaves from the rhizomes once warmer temperatures return in spring.
Plant Description Under North Florida Conditions
Leaves of rhizomatous begonias are this plant’s most distinctive feature and are why this group is so appealing to gardeners. Leaves often are large, from a few inches wide to almost 3 ft. in diameter (as reported for the cultivar ‘Freddie’ under the right conditions). Leaf shape may be rounded, star-shaped or irregularly edged, and leaf colors include burgundy, red, bronze, chartreuse, silver, and various shades of green including one so dark as to be almost black. Many types have leaves displaying patterns of one or more colors and some have silver or red markings. Undersides of leaves are often burgundy-colored, and leaf stems (petioles) also may exhibit colors other than or in addition to green. Leaves may be smooth, textured, or fuzzy-appearing due to large numbers of sometimes conspicuous hairs. Some types have leaves with an interesting three-dimensional spiral located on top of the leaf where the leaf blade attaches to the stem.
Begonia ‘Big Mac’ foliage
Rhizomatous begonia rhizomes are thickened, fleshy stems 1 to 2 in. or more in diameter that grow, branch and spread horizontally at or just below the soil surface, often in the mulch or leaf duff. Adventitious roots develop along the rhizome, and dormant buds embedded in the horizontal stem can be stimulated to grow new leaves after damage, stress or when divided. With age, as rhizomes grow outward, the oldest part of the rhizome will stop producing leaves and eventually die.
The rhizomes contain water and food reserves that allow this type of begonia to survive environmental stresses like drought as well as leaf loss or damage from cold temperatures. Shoots and roots can grow from the rhizome even if leaves and roots are killed or damaged.
Flowers occur in late winter to spring, depending on the species, cultivar and weather, and are quite showy on some selections. Flowers typically are white to various shades of pink and occur in a cluster (technically called a cyme) held above the foliage, in some cases dramatically high above the foliage. Individual flowers may range in size from 3/8-inch to over 2 inches at their widest point and a flower cluster may contain a few to over 120 individual flowers, depending on selection and growing conditions. A mature rhizomatous begonia may have an extended period of flowering, providing weeks of color. This long floral display results from large numbers of flowers developing sequentially on an individual flower cluster such that new flowers are still forming long after the first flowers have opened. Furthermore, multiple flower clusters appear over an extended time period. Flowers occasionally are pollinated and form winged seed capsules, though seed production and viability are variable. After flowering, the leaves remain a point of interest in the garden due to their size, lush appearance, interesting shapes and colorful patterns.
Cultural Requirements, Use and Maintenance
Rhizomatous begonias grow best in light shade or indirect light but can tolerate morning sun. Plants thrive in rich, organic, well-drained soil that is moist but not wet. A layer of organic mulch or leaf litter often is enough to provide basic conditions for growth in most soils if they are well-drained. Accordingly, organic mulches or leaf litter should be applied regularly around plants. Fertilizer stimulates growth but decomposing organic mulches can provide adequate nutrients, except perhaps with poor or sandy soils.
Newly planted begonias should be watered regularly. After establishment, most rhizomatous begonias benefit from regular watering but only require irrigation during periods of drought or extended dry weather.
An individual plant makes an attractive specimen plant in a container or in the garden. With time, a rhizomatous begonia can spread and, in the garden, develop into a patch. Alternatively, planting large numbers of the same rhizomatous begonia can create a very dramatic garden border, mass planting, or groundcover, especially in spring when all plants are flowering. To achieve this effect more rapidly and with smaller numbers of plants, tips of rhizomes can be pruned to stimulate rhizome branching and result in a denser plant or patch. Rhizome tip pruning should be done after plants finish flowering. Plants can be divided and moved easily since only the rhizome is needed to establish a new plant, but this should occur after flowering and early in the growing season so plants have long enough to establish before cold weather.
For aesthetic purposes, dead or damaged leaves may be removed as needed but especially after frosts and hard freezes. Similarly, leaves that overwinter often become “ratty” in appearance with time and may be removed without affecting plant growth.
Rhizomatous begonias have few pests or other problems. Mealy bugs can occasionally infest plants. As with other large-leaved plants, wind or physical contact can tear and damage leaves. In north Florida, winter frosts and freezes can damage and disfigure leaves or kill leaves entirely, causing them to lose structural integrity and collapse, appearing mushy. Foliage may be protected during cold weather by frost cloth, sheets or other typical cold protection strategies, though heavy coverings could themselves damage leaves.
Rhizomes themselves usually survive cold weather because they are insulated from low temperatures by being half-buried in the ground and/or being covered by mulch. Adding mulch regularly to rhizomatous begonia plants will provide increased freeze-protection. Also, their typical planting location under tree canopies protects plants from a radiation freeze. Soil drainage is a more important factor for rhizomes since wet soil conditions could lead to rot, particularly in winter.
Common Types and their Descriptions Under North Florida Conditions
With hundreds of species and thousands of cultivars and hybrids, rhizomatous begonias can be overwhelming. Many rhizomatous begonias look alike and even experts have difficulty distinguishing species and cultivars. Many grown in north Florida have their origins in Mexico, Central and South America, though the Begonia Family is huge and species are found nearly world-wide.
Technically rhizomatous begonias include Rex begonias, a group derived from Asian native, Begonia rex, and known for their especially colorful leaves. However, most Rex begonias do not grow well in Florida’s heat, high rainfall and high humidity, and so these begonias are excluded here.
Begonias listed below represent types that have proven resilient and usually cold hardy in north Florida USDA Cold Hardiness Zone 8b.
Begonia heracleifolia: The species boasts star-shaped leaves up to 6 in. across on stiff, hairy, thick leaf stems (petioles) up to 5 in. long. Each of the pointed leaf lobes is edged in dark green and has a chartreuse stripe along the central midrib, adding contrast. Spectacular sprays of pale pink flowers appear in late winter in clusters measuring 3 ½ in. by 4 ½ in. on 6-in. flower stalks (pedicels). Each cluster contains about 30 or more flowers, each about 1 in. across. As the season goes on, foliage gets showier and showier. It often dies down after winter freezes but re-emerges in late spring.
- nelumbiifolia: This cold hardy begonia is known for its exceptionally large, water lotus-shaped leaves, creating a stunning specimen. Individual leaves can grow as large as 18 in. by 14 in. on leaf stems as long as 36 in. but 12 in. by 9 in. leaves are more typical. As temperatures warm, new developing foliage continues to get bigger, growing into very large leaves by fall. There also is a form in which the medium green leaves have red veining. White flowers are displayed above the foliage in mid to late spring in airy clusters measuring 7 ½ in. to more than 12 in. across on stems up to 48 in. tall. Clusters may contain as many as an astounding 120 flowers, each about ¾ in. across at its widest point.
2. popenoei: Huge rounded leaves with red veins and undersides make this a specimen plant which can grow to 3 ½ ft. tall and wide. Hardy with protection, it throws up tall stalks with clusters of white flowers in late winter.
“Beefsteak”: This catch-all name refers to the original beefsteak begonia, ‘Erythrophylla’, as well as many derivatives that look similar. Beefsteak begonias characteristically have rounded leaves with a glossy green to bronze top surface and reddish undersides. Leaves range in size from 4 to 7 in. in diameter, and flower clusters are on stems up to 18 in. tall. ‘Erythrophylla’ was developed in 1847 and is considered a tough, vigorous plant, hence the common name, “beefsteak”. Given the long history and vigor, ‘Erythrophylla’ and derivative beefsteak begonias have long been shared as pass-along plants, world-wide as potted plants and later as an in-ground Florida garden plant. One type has ruddy, evergreen leaves and long-lasting, bold pink flower clusters. The scalloped 4-in leaves are on short 5 ½ in. reddish leaf stems but are most notable for remaining undamaged by temperatures down to the mid 20s °F, long after all other begonias’ leaves have turned to mush. Mid spring finds this plant topped by numerous clusters of dark pink flowers, with the display lasting 6 weeks or more. Individual clusters are about 8 in. by 5 in. on flower stems about 12 in. tall. Each cluster contains about 20 flowers each about ¾ in. wide at its widest point.
Begonia ‘Big Mac’ in flower
‘Big Mac’: This is a large, vigorous plant with enormous star-shaped leaves having reddish undertones and red leaf stems. The plant grows about 3 ft. tall and 2 ft. wide. Individual leaves may grow up to 18 in. wide on 16-in. leaf stems but typical leaves on younger plants are 10 in. to 12 in. wide. Individual white flowers are an amazing 2 in. wide at their widest point in clusters measuring 7 in. by 12 in. and containing about 75 flowers. Cold winters will knock it to the ground, but this begonia re-emerges again in late spring. This plant was hybridized in 1982 by Paul P. Lowe in Lake Park, Florida.
‘Joe Hayden’: This begonia features dramatic, dark, lobed leaves with burgundy undersides. Leaves are up to 8 in. long supported by leaf stems up to 9 in. long. In spring, the plant is topped by light pink flowers held high above the foliage. Each cluster measures about 5 in. by 7 in. on flower stems up to 26 in. tall. Each cluster contains more than 100 individual flowers, each about ¾ in. across at its widest point. This selection was hybridized in California in 1953 by Rudolf Ziesenhenne, but many similar selections have been made and are often confused with ‘Joe Hayden’.
Begonia ‘Joe Hayden’
Many other cultivars are common, but other cold hardy types suitable for north Florida include ‘Caribbean King’, ‘Caribbean Queen’, ‘Washington State’ and the catch-all ‘Ricinifolia’ types (with large, castor bean-shaped leaves). New breeding by scientists and enthusiasts promises to deliver many more types of rhizomatous begonias with increased foliage cold hardiness and an expanded range of foliage types and colors. A major Texas nursery introduced a series of rhizomatous begonia hybrids marketed as Crown Jewel Begonia™. The series currently features five patent-pending cultivars that are promoted as landscape plants for Zone 8. Additional breeding work is ongoing in north Florida.
Availability and Propagation
Rhizomatous begonias are available from Internet/mail order nurseries, some American Begonia Society members, other gardening groups, and plant societies. The introduction of trademarked rhizomatous begonias like Crown Jewel Begonia™ show promise for wider availability of rhizomatous begonias from nurseries.
Rhizomatous begonias are easily propagated by division, separation of rhizomes, or by rhizome pieces. When planting, place the rhizome or pieces (as small as 2 in. long) horizontally and half buried in a new in-ground location or in a container with potting soil. As with other begonia species, leaves may be used for propagation, though this method usually takes longer to achieve a size suitable for planting in the garden. Plants can be grown from seeds but production time is similarly long.
American Begonia Society. (2020) https://www.begonias.org/index.htm. Accessed 15 April 2020.
Ginori, Julian, Heqiang Huo, and Caroline R. Warwick. (2020) A Beginner’s Guide to Begonias: Classification and Diversity, ENH1317. Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. January 2020. https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/ep581.
Lowe, Paul. (1991) Growing Rhizomatous Begonias in the Ground in Southern Florida. Begonian 58:89. May/June 1991. https://www.begonias.org/Articles/Vol58/GrowingRhizomatousBegoniasFlorida.htm.
Schoellhorn, R. (2020) Personal communication, Alachua, FL.
Sharp, Peter G. (2011) Down to Earth – with begonias. 111 pp. http://ibegonias.filemakerstudio.com.au/PeterSharp/DownToEarthWithBegonias.pdf.
The International Database of the BEGONIACEAE. (2020) http://ibegonias.filemakerstudio.com.au/index.php?-link=Home. Accessed 16 April 2020.
UF/IFAS Gardening Solutions. (2019) Begonias. http://gardeningsolutions.ifas.ufl.edu/plants/ornamentals/begonias.html.
Watkins, Sue. (2020) Personal communication, Tallahassee, FL.
Spring is a wonderful time of year. After months of dreariness and bare branches, bright, succulent green leaves and flowers of every kind and color have emerged. So too, have emerged gardeners and outdoor enthusiasts ready to tackle all their home and landscape improvement projects planned over the winter. However, this is also the time, when folks first start paying attention to their plants again, that strange, seemingly inexpiable plant problems crop up!
All plant problems can be divided into two categories: biotic problems, or issues caused by a living organism (think insects, fungus, and bacteria), and abiotic problems, issues that arise from things other than biotic pests. It’s the first category that people generally turn to when something goes wrong in their landscape or garden. It’s convenient to blame problems on pests and it’s very satisfying to go to the local home improvement store, buy a bottle of something and spray the problem into submission. But, in many of my consultations with clientele each spring, I find myself having to step back, consider holistically the circumstances causing the issue to arise, scout for pests and diseases, and if I find no evidence of either, encouraging the person to consider the possibility the problem is abiotic and to adopt patience and allow the problem to correct itself. Of course, this is never what anyone wants to hear. We always want a solvable problem with a simple cause and solution. But life isn’t always that easy and sometimes we must accept that we (nor a pest/disease) did anything wrong to cause the issue and, in some cases, that we ourselves actually caused the problem to happen in the first place! To illustrate, let’s consider two case studies from site visits I’ve had this spring.
Cold damage on Boxwood hedge
Three weeks ago, I got a call from a very concerned client. She had gotten her March issue of a popular outdoor magazine in the mail, in which was a feature on an emerging pathogen, Boxwood Blight, a nasty fungus decimating Boxwood populations in states north of us. She had also noticed the Boxwoods in front of her house had recently developed browning of their new spring shoots across most the hedgerow. Having read the article and matching the symptoms she’d noticed to the ones described in the magazine article, she was convinced her shrub was infected with blight and wanted to know if there was a cure. Agreeing that the symptoms sounded similar and wanting to rule out an infection of an extremely serious pathogen, I decided to go take a look. Upon inspection, it was obvious that Boxwood Blight wasn’t to blame. Damage from disease generally isn’t quite as uniform as what I saw. The new growth on top of the hedge was indeed brown but only where the eaves of the house and a nearby tree didn’t provide overhead cover and, to boot, the sides of the hedge were a very normal bright green. Having gone through a recent cold snap that brought several mornings of heavy frost and knowing that the weeks before that the weather had been unseasonably warm, causing many plants to begin growing prematurely, all signs pointed toward an abiotic problem, cold/frost damage that would clear up as soon as the plant put on another flush of growth. The client was delighted to hear she didn’t have a hedge killing problem that would require either adopting a monthly fungicide regime or replacing the hedge with a different species.
Damage to ‘Sunshine’ Ligustrum from pressure washing siding with bleach.
The very next week, another client asked if I would come by her house and take a look at a hedge of ‘Sunshine’ Ligustrum that lines her driveway, whose leaves had “bleached” out, turning from their normal chartreuse to a bronzy white color. This time, having seen similar issues with this particular plant that almost always involved an infestation of Spider or Broad Mites, I figured this was a cut and dry case that would end with a call to her pest control company to come spray the offending bugs. However, though the leaf damage looked similar, I was not able to locate any existing pests or find evidence any had been around recently, rather it appeared the leaves had been exposed to something that “bleached” and burned them. Puzzled, I began asking questions. What kind of maintenance occurs on the plants? Have you fertilized or applied any chemicals recently? Nothing. Then, near the end of our conversation, the client mentioned that her neighbor had pressure washed their house on a windy day and that she was irritated because some of the soap solution had gotten on her car. Bingo. Leaf burn from pressure washing solution chemicals. This time I was guilty of assuming the worst from a pest when the problem quite literally blew in on the wind from next door. Again, the client was relieved to know the plant would recover as soon as a new flush of growth emerged and hid the burned older leaves!
This spring, I’d encourage you to learn from the above situations and the next time you notice an issue on plants in your yard, before you reach for the pesticides, take a step back and think about what the damage looks like, thoroughly inspect the plants for possible insects or disease, and if you don’t find any, consider the possibility that the problem was abiotic in nature! And remember, if you need any assistance with identification of a landscape problem and want research-based recommendations on how to manage the problem, contact your local UF/IFAS Extension office.