Drought could affect fall foliage

July 25, 1997


Staff Writer

Washington County residents say they can look out their front windows and watch the shade tree leaves turning colors and drifting slowly to the ground - in July.

Along with depleting crops and town reservoirs, the summer drought is draining water from leaves, causing them to wilt, turn brown and prematurely fall from trees.

Horticulture experts say it is hard to determine now how this will affect the fall colors.

But, "if the drought recurs, the leaves will begin dropping off early this fall, and the colors will not be as brilliant," said Jean Leslie, horticulture consultant with the Home and Garden Information Center.


Some spots in Washington County may have more serious early leaf droppage than others because of the past week's scattered rain, said Andy Smogor, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources Forest Service forester who works in the county.

But the problem is apparent.

"You can see it just walking in the woods and in people's trees in their front lawns," he said.

Troy Jernigan, owner of Jernigan's Landscaping in Smithsburg, said extent of damage depends on the species. "Some have defoliated 25 percent. The redbuds, I would say they defoliated about 50 percent," he said.

Tree experts said a widespread shade tree disease and black locust leafmining beetles, both of which poke holes in leaves, discolor them and cause them to drop, also could contribute to this month's pseudo fall.

But Sandy Scott, horticulture consultant for the Washington County Cooperative Extension Service, said dropping leaves is a tree's natural response to overly dry weather.

In fact, it's the tree's defense mechanism, said Bill Gimpel, who works in the plant protection and weed management section of the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

Without water, the tree's water transport system closes down, preventing essential nutrients from traveling to other parts of the plant, he said.

Dropping dry, withered leaves that can no longer produce chlorophyll, the food substance that gives leaves their green color, saves the trees from further damage, he said.

"If the tree continues to lose water, then it's killing more than just a leaf. It could spread to a branch, or the trunk, or even down to its roots," Gimpel said.

But Smogor said conditions haven't reached that point, claiming he still has not seen a tree completely bereft of leaves.

"What I am suspecting is if the trees are shutting down, they're not dying. When there is rain later in August and September, the trees will just put out new leaves," Gimpel said.

"As long as the trees are not dead, they will produce fall colors," he added.

Until then, homeowners are advised to water their trees by lightly dripping one inch of water per week in the tree's soil, letting it seep underground from the roots to the farthest point of hanging leaves.

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