Sunday, June 18, 2023

Oaks Will Be Oakay

bur oak tree

If you’ve wondered what awful new malady has struck our oak trees this spring, resulting in shriveled, deformed and dead leaves, the answer is chilling. Literally; as in cold. A hard freeze on the night of May 17-18 happened at just the right – or wrong – time, catching oak foliage at a critically tender stage. Since trees can’t change their locations (to my knowledge, at least), I guess you could say that oaks were in the right place at the wrong time.

Periods of unusually warm temperatures between April 12-22, and again from May 6-13, enticed many trees to push out new growth quickly. This likely set the stage for more widespread harm than if the mid-May freeze had occurred in the midst of a slow, gradual
warming trend.

Other tree species that bud-out late such as hickory, butternut, and walnut were also affected to various degrees. Across the region, the extent of freeze injury varies from slight to severe, depending on things like slope aspect, genetic variation among individual oaks, whether trees were partly sheltered by the surrounding forest, and soil pH (bud-break is a bit earlier on acid soils). In many places, the damage looks harsh – even zipping along a highway, one can pick out which trees are oaks by the sparse canopies and unusual reddish cast to the foliage.

Young new growth is rosy because after that hard frost, oak trees now want to protect their leaves from sunlight. A class of chemicals called anthocyanins, which produce the red and purple color range in plants, act as UV protectants. It sounds bizarre to put sunscreen on leaves, which need sunshine to photosynthesize. But it turns out chlorophyll can be destroyed by intense UV rays at low temperatures. Eventually, the red will give way to green as anthocyanins break down and are not replenished (these large molecules cost plants a lot of energy to create, and while investing in them in springtime makes sense, no one has yet explained why trees make them in the fall after chlorophyll is gone).

In the spring of 1993, a similar thing took place where I was living in the Saranac Lake region. That time, a freeze occurred when beech trees were just leafing out, and I was flooded with calls about a new “beech-leaf blight.” And then in 2011, sugar maples in the St. Lawrence Valley got touched by frost when their leaves were still folded. As the leaves opened, long gaps appeared, and I was awash in questions about what was “eating” the maple leaves.

At this time, I see no need to despair about the future of oak trees, although feel free to do so if you really want. Many oaks are still in the process of pushing out a new crop of leaves, and even those that go through the season with minimal leaf-surface area have energy reserves on which to rely. Dry soil conditions can inhibit re-foliation, so as long as we get a reasonable complement of rainfall this summer and don’t have an outbreak of defoliators like spongy-moth or tent caterpillars, the oaks should be OK.

Photo of burr oak by Katja Schulz from Washington, D. C., CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World


2 Responses

  1. Plow Boy says:

    Thank you for the timely/knowledgeable update that the sky is not falling.
    Coming on the heels of the sad ash disaster our forest’s do not need another tree disaster.

  2. Boreas says:

    Thanks Paul.

    Luckily, trees have evolved with quite a bit of resilience. Humans measure life in years, trees in decades. With “normal” environmental fluctuations, trees may have a bad year for foliage or mast, but it usually takes multiple bad years to seriously injure or kill a tree. This is because of their immense storage systems in their roots and “wood wide web” that exists beneath the soils. We now know healthy forest communities actually share their resources in times of stress using fungal networks in the soil. Maples may take it on the chin one year and borrow from oaks, and the following season this may be reversed. This symbiosis helps keep undisturbed forests healthy and resilient. Although rarely given credit, healthy forest soil communities are just as critical as rain and sunlight in maintaining healthy forests.

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