Damaged or dead Rhododendron?

mwolsen66April 19, 2013

Please help. We bought our house 5 years ago. In the back are 3 large, old Rhododendrons that we have come to love and adore. I'm very worried that they are dying this year as they look terrible!
I admit I don't know a lot about these plants. I dead head each year and I fertilize with proper food. Every year they have come out of winter looking good and they bloom amazingly!

This year the middle one and parts of the other two are looking like the plants are dying.

I've uploaded images that I hope allow anyone to give me advice. Do I replace? Can I save?

Thanks so much!

I'm in Michigan and we are still having cold weather presently if that helps.

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Another pic

    Bookmark   April 19, 2013 at 7:20PM
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Last pic

    Bookmark   April 19, 2013 at 7:23PM
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I wanted you all to see what it looked like just last spring.

    Bookmark   April 19, 2013 at 7:28PM
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It's not possible to be 100% certain, but they're almost certainly not dying. They seem to be showing, however, extensive damage from the effects of winter sun, cold and wind. If this is the case, you should be seeing the damage concentrated in the most exposed areas. This does seem to be the case in those pictures where the orientation of the plants can be determined. Perhaps this was a particularly harsh winter,o other plants which acted as a windbreak were thinned or removed, or the plants went into the winter season without sufficient moisture. You want to be careful with fertilizer as well. Applications after mid to late June can stimulate late vegetative growth which has no chance to ripen enough before winter.

The severely curled and browned leaves will not recover, but new leaves will emerge as long as the wood itself is still alive. If it is not alive, prune back to where it shows a green cambium layer at a point just above a dormant bud.

These rhododendrons are going to look odd for a year or two, but they will recover in time. Some sort of wind/sun screen is probably impractical for plants this big, but an application of WiltPruf or other anti-dessicant spray in the late fall can make a big difference.

    Bookmark   April 20, 2013 at 5:16AM
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Thank you akamainegrower for the response. I'm uploading two more pics to give you a better view of the whole plant.

I'm thinking I'll need to prune back quite a bit in the middle of this space. Would planting an arborvitae or two in that space be a good idea?


    Bookmark   April 20, 2013 at 12:26PM
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From another angle

    Bookmark   April 20, 2013 at 12:27PM
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It does look as if the exposed side has suffered extensive damage - usually lower branches are protected somewhat, often by snow, but the damage is really from top to bottom.The green, normal leaves all seem to be on the protected side facing the house. I can think of no reasons why this winter was so much worse than the previous four other than those mentioned in the previous post. The picture of the rhodendron in bloom shows what seems to be good protection from evergreen trees at the edge of the property - still there?

I would not be in too much of a hurry to prune. This continues to be a late spring. Wait another month to see what things look like, As for the arbor vitae, I'm not sure if you mean as a replacement or a windbreak. Nor is it clear how much space is available.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 5:16AM
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Those evergreens are still there.

About the arborvitae, I was figuring that pruning will leave so much empty space and take some of the privacy away that the Rhododendron had been supplying, that I would want to replace that vegetation with some 5-6' arborvitaes - 1 or 2 of them.

    Bookmark   April 21, 2013 at 4:43PM
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rhodyman(SE PA, USDA Z6)

You may be pleasantly surprised at the new growth that comes out from the rhododendron. There is no rush to cut off the part that looks dead. Wait until you see where the new growth is coming from. If you plant arborvitaes near the rhododendron, it will discourage dormant buds from opening on the rhododendron and providing new growth. The buds need light to encourage them to open.

The damage looks like winter drought damage. The winter may have been mild but dry. It can also come from a very long winter when the ground was frozen. Plants need to be watered in mild dry winters since the air is extremely dry and desiccates green tissue exposed to sun and/or wind.

    Bookmark   April 22, 2013 at 11:41AM
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Here is a more recent photo. I just wanted your opinions once again.

thank you so much for your initial comments!

    Bookmark   May 7, 2013 at 8:26PM
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A similar situation exists with my rhody following a severe and long winter here in the northeast so I appreciate the advice. However I am not clear about the suggestion to "prune back to where it shows a green cambium layer at a point just above a dormant bud". All of the dormant bulbs on my plant are at the tip of the wood so there is no wood "above" a dormant bud.

    Bookmark   March 23, 2014 at 7:08PM
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This has been the toughest winter for rhododendrons in the northeast and elsewhere in probably 20 years and it doesn't seem to be over yet. Extensive damage and some outright fatalities are very likely. I certainly would wait before pruning or doing anything else.

A picture would help, but I think you're probably confusing the currently dormant flower buds with dormant leaf buds. The flower buds - which may or may not produce any blooms this year - are large, inverted cone shape, and always at the very tip of last year's growth. Dormant leaf buds are much smaller and cling tightly to the stems below the flower buds. There are also many more of them. It's just above one of these where you want to make your pruning cut when the time comes. At this point, though, you need to exercise patience. See if you get any bloom. If you don"t get any or just a few and all of the leaves below the flower bud remain curled, dry and brown, then prune back to just above one of the leaf buds on all of the effected branches.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 6:20AM
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I live in an area where Rhododendrons are a bit borderline. Here's my experience with a large Rhododendron, probably a Roseum elegans, the only one of my Rhododendrons that regularly gets winter kill. (It was planted by a previous occupant of the house and probably isn't ideally sited.) Even if all current leaves are damaged and even the flower buds (the fat ones at branch tips), and occasionally even the leaf buds (the smaller ones near the branch tips) are also damaged, often the wood is still alive. Wait until you see the blooms start to fade on the undamaged parts of the shrub. Within a few days, you should see either the leaf buds near the branch ends start to leaf out, or failing that, about 2 weeks later small reddish green bumps on the woody stems farther down will start to appear and swell. It's amazing how a really ratty looking plant will fill out in a relatively short amount of time. If they really bother you, remove the severely damaged leaves, but don't be in a hurry to do any cutting of branches. Rhododendrons have the ability to start new buds from under the bark on what look like bare branches, so as long as the wood is alive, the plant will recover. I don't usually prune away dead wood on my rhodies until mid-June to early July because by then, I can tell what is dead rather than winter damaged. (Gardening teaches me patience . . . )

If it ends up that the top of the shrub is dead, almost always whatever has been protected by snow will still be alive (if you had snow in the unusually cold part of the winter.)

    Bookmark   March 24, 2014 at 7:16AM
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mikebotann(8a SE of Seattle)

Did you water it at all last summer?
Did it get a good soaking before winter set in?
All said, it does look like winter damage from sustained cold and wind. You guys in the upper midwest had it bad this year.
Your lawn looks nice. Did you use a broad leaved weed killer like Weed N' Feed on it?

    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 1:10AM
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Forget the arborvitae idea. You will ruin the look of your planting and crowd the Rhodies when they fill in. Winter has taken its toll on your Rhodies but they will grow and fill in.

Patience is a virtue.


    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 1:26AM
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Also, as Rhody says-it is important to make sure any evergreen has water through the winter. Any plant with leaves will continue to transpire and must have water to replace that which is lost. This can be difficult in frozen soil like we had this winter.


    Bookmark   March 29, 2014 at 1:31AM
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