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Top 10 Causes of Tree Discoloration and Poor Growth

Tree discoloration refers to any abnormal change in the coloration of a tree’s foliage, bark, or overall appearance. This color change indicates underlying stress, disease, or environmental factors affecting the tree’s health.

Signs of discoloration often include wilting, yellowing, browning, or spotting of leaves, accompanied by stunted growth or dieback. Common causes include nutrient deficiencies, soil compaction, drought, waterlogging, pests like aphids or borers, diseases such as fungal infections, and chemical exposure.

Identifying the root cause is crucial for effective treatment, which involves cultural practices, such as proper watering and fertilization, pest and disease management, or soil amendments.

The following are the top 10 causes of tree discoloration and poor growth, offering insights into prevention and treatment approaches to help ensure your trees thrive.

1. Drought Stress and Tree Discoloration

Drought stress depletes the soil moisture, impairing the tree’s ability to uptake water and nutrients, leading to discoloration and poor growth. Even the most resilient tree species fall victim to drought stress- it’s not uncommon to see shade trees, young trees, and established deciduous trees exhibiting signs of stress during severe drought.

Trees under drought stress display the following symptoms:

  • Wilting leaves that remain wilted even in the early morning
  • Cracks in thin bark
  • Decreased canopy density
  • Yellowing of leaves
  • Smaller new leaf growth

Chronic drought conditions progressively weaken trees over several years, sometimes in combination with other stress factors, making recovery and management more challenging.


Early symptoms of drought stress are often subtle but become more obvious as the stress continues. Trees display early signs such as wilting leaves, leaf scorch, and premature fall coloration. As the drought stress intensifies, trees evince temporary wilting, where leaves droop during the day but recover by morning. They also show yellowing leaves and leaf scorch, where margins turn brown.

Recognizing these early signs and symptoms of drought stress is critical for timely interventions to prevent long-term damage to tree health.


Preventing drought stress in trees starts with proper maintenance and understanding the watering needs of the tree. Here are some tips to follow:

  1. Water trees infrequently but deeply.
  2. Extend the watering area two to three times the tree’s drip line.
  3. Only water when signs of drought, such as wilting or yellow foliage, are evident.

By following these tips, you help prevent drought stress in your trees.

During heatwaves, the consistent provision of water is crucial. Here are more pointers to help protect your trees during drought conditions:

  • Regularly water your trees to ensure they receive enough moisture.
  • Apply mulch around the base of the trees to help retain moisture and protect the roots.
  • Choose drought-resistant tree species for new plantings to reduce the risk of discoloration and poor growth due to drought stress.

By following these instructions, you ensure the health and vitality of your trees during heatwaves and droughts.

2. Soil Compaction and Root Damage

Soil compaction is the compression or reduction of pore spaces within the soil, resulting in increased soil density and reduced air and water movement. When soil particles are pressed together, the space between them decreases. This process severely harms tree roots by limiting water and oxygen availability essential for roots and their symbiotic mycorrhizal fungi. Even though the effects of soil compaction are immediately apparent, they lead to major issues such as tree crown dieback or, in severe cases, the tree’s death.

Compacted soils create an oxygen-poor environment that impedes the healthy growth and development of roots and mycorrhizal fungi, affecting the tree’s overall stability. Hence, preventative measures are critical to avoid root damage and decline due to soil compaction, which otherwise can present irreversible consequences for trees.


Soil compaction occurs when the weight from people or machinery presses down on soil particles, decreasing the space between them. The use of heavy equipment, such as lawnmowers, heavily contributes to the compaction of soil around trees.

In addition to machinery, frequent foot traffic is also a major causative factor in soil compaction around trees.


Combatting soil compaction and its effects on tree health requires a multi-pronged approach. Creating designated paths and restricting activities such as parking or driving around trees abate soil compaction and protect tree roots.

For compacted soils, professional arborists deploy the following methods to improve conditions for tree root growth:

  • Air excavation tools to loosen the soil
  • Adding compost to improve drainage, particularly in clay soils
  • Alleviating problems associated with overwatering

3. Nutrient Deficiencies and Imbalances

Trees, like all plants, require a balanced supply of nutrients to thrive. However, poor soil conditions result in nutrient deficiencies and imbalances, precipitating a substantial decline in tree health. Some common nutrient deficiencies in trees include:

  • Inadequate nitrogen, which creates discoloration and stunted growth
  • Poor aeration, which results in root suffocation and nutrient uptake issues
  • Root competition, where nearby plants compete for nutrients and limit the tree’s access to them

Trees growing on low-quality sites suffer from these nutrient deficiencies, which hurt their general health.

Littleleaf Disease, exacerbated by a nutrient deficiency, is a prime example of how poor soil conditions impact tree health. This disease specifically affects trees growing on soils with excessive moisture and low fertility. As such, macronutrients and micronutrients become essential for addressing deficiencies and promoting tree health.

Common Deficiencies

Trees require macronutrients in larger quantities for healthy growth, which include:

  • Nitrogen
  • Phosphorus
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Magnesium
  • Sulfur

Each of these nutrients plays a crucial role in tree health and their deficiency aggravates specific symptoms. For instance, nitrogen deficiency is characterized by a lighter green color in older leaves and premature leaf drop.

Trees also need micronutrients such as iron and manganese, which are required in smaller amounts but still vital in tree health.


Addressing nutrient deficiencies in trees requires a comprehensive approach that includes both prevention and treatment strategies. For small trees and shrubs suffering from micronutrient deficiencies, soil drenches, and foliar sprays are effective treatment methods. Larger trees require more intensive treatments like tree injections to address macro and micronutrient deficiencies directly in the vascular system of the tree.

More importantly, maintaining tree health with proper planting, fertilization, watering, and avoiding changes in the growing site that may cause root damage is key to controlling dieback.

4. Fungal Diseases and Tree Health

Fungal diseases are another significant threat to tree health, leading to a wide range of symptoms such as:

  • wilting
  • discoloration
  • necrosis
  • premature leaf drop
  • various forms of blights and cankers

Fungal diseases are spread by wind, water, soil, insects, and other vectors, enabling them to infest large areas. They remain dormant in living and dead plant tissues, waiting for optimal conditions to proliferate.

While certain fungi like mycorrhizae have a symbiotic relationship with tree roots, other types are harmful and cause diseases that degrade tree health. Some common fungal diseases that affect urban canopies include:

  • Fire blight
  • Annosus root and butt rot
  • Cedar-apple rust
  • Anthracnose
  • Oak wilt

These common tree diseases have significant impacts on the health of various trees, including oak trees, in cities.

Types of Fungal Diseases

Several types of fungal diseases act upon trees. Some common ones include:

  • Downy mildew
  • Fire blight
  • Leaf blight
  • Early blight
  • Late blight
  • Leaf spot
  • Leaf rust
  • Fusarium wilt

Each of these diseases manifests in different ways, affecting the leaves, bark, roots, or overall health of the tree.

For instance, Laurel wilt begins with a reddish-purple discoloration in a portion of the crown, followed by drooping foliage and eventually a browning of the entire crown.

Prevention and Treatment

Preventing and managing fungal diseases in trees involves a combination of proactive measures and targeted treatments. This includes pruning without a specific goal, which causes unnecessary harm to a tree or shrub. Over-pruning the crown exposes a tree’s delicate bark to excess sunlight, potentially causing sunburn, weakening the tree’s structure, and resulting in irregular growth patterns.

Using dull tools for pruning imposes rough cuts that rip or shred the bark, leading to unnecessarily large wounds.

5. Bark Beetles and Tree Decline

Bark beetles are tiny insects that pose a large threat to trees. They form mass attacks on trees, living and feeding underneath the bark, and have the potential to overcome even healthy trees. These beetles are particularly damaging because they disrupt the flow of nutrients within the tree, leading to tree stress and decline.

Early indications of a bark beetle infestation are sawdust at the tree’s base, pitch tubes on the bark, and entry holes created by the beetles. Trees infested by bark beetles exhibit a rapid change in needle color, transitioning from green to yellow, then to red, before the needles ultimately drop off.

Bark Beetle Infestations

Bark beetle infestations are particularly challenging to manage due to their ability to quickly attack and overrun a tree. The initial signs of bark beetle infestation include:

  • Sawdust at the base of the tree
  • Pitch tubes (popcorn-like masses of sap)
  • Small holes where beetles have entered
  • Visible galleries in the inner bark are observed when the bark is peeled back

These infestations are so severe that they overwhelm even healthy trees, affecting their infected branches and leading to infected trees.

Control Measures

Controlling bark beetle infestations starts with improving tree vigor through cultural practices as stressed trees are more prone to attack. Trees showing signs of bark beetle infestation need to be promptly pruned, and the material disposed of to preclude the beetles from spreading to nearby trees.

Additionally, protective spraying of persistent insecticides safeguards uninfested trees from bark beetles if administered by licensed professionals before beetle emergence.

6. Girdling Roots and Tree Stress

Girdling roots are roots that grow in a pattern around the trunk of a tree, potentially suffocating it by constricting important pathways. These problematic roots originate from root-bound conditions in container-grown plants, emerge during transplantation, or form naturally as the tree grows.

The constriction brought about by girdling roots hampers the movement of sap, blocking essential carbohydrates from reaching the roots, thus inducing stress and decline in trees. Trees afflicted with girdling roots exhibit a progression of symptoms over 5-10 years, including a thinning crown, stunted growth, and the dieback of twigs and large branches. Root pruning is a potential solution to address this issue.

Causes of Girdling Roots

Girdling roots often result from trees being left in their containers for prolonged periods, which perpetuates roots to circle the pot and continue to grow in this manner after planting. Trees and shrubs that are container-grown and pot-bound frequently develop girdling roots.

A visual sign of a tree potentially being planted too deep is when the trunk emerges straight from the ground without visible flare roots, a condition that develops girdling roots.


Prevention and early detection are crucial in reducing problems associated with girdling roots. This involves practices such as loosening and properly orienting circling roots during planting, and ensuring the planting hole is sufficiently wide.

An air knife is used to expose the roots for inspection by removing soil without causing damage to root structures, which allows for the assessment of girdling roots. Girdling roots are addressed either by removal using tools like chisels, mallets, pruners, loppers, and saws or by sawing through in several places if removal is not possible.

7. Invasive Species and Tree Health

Invasive species pose a significant threat to tree health and the overall ecosystem. These species cause a lot of damage to trees, thus discoloration and poor growth. The presence of pests like the emerald ash borer and mountain pine beetle, as well as invasive pine species, affects urban canopies in various cities.

The economic burden of combating invasive species such as the emerald ash borer is substantial, with costs for tree removal and replacements reaching billions. Invasive species also threaten industries relying on specific tree species, such as the hardwood products and maple syrup industries which are at risk due to the Asian longhorned beetle.

Examples of Invasive Species

The damage caused by invasive species extends beyond just trees. Some of the most notable invasive species include the emerald ash borer and the Asian longhorned beetle, which breed substantial damage to trees. Forest plants like Garlic Mustard, Giant Hogweed, and Cheatgrass also present threats as invasive species, disrupting the balance of forest ecosystems.

Management Strategies

A robust management strategy is crucial to address the negative effects of invasive species on tree health and urban forests. The forestry sector faces significant economic consequences due to invasive species, highlighting the need for strategies focused on preserving timber resources to safeguard the industry’s economic stability.

Successful management of invasive species includes:

  • Prevention
  • Control
  • Mitigation efforts
  • Significant investments in resources such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s expenditure to combat the emerald ash borer.

8. Environmental Factors and Tree Discoloration

Apart from diseases and pests, environmental elements also produce tree discoloration and poor growth. These include:

  • Planting in unsuitable locations
  • Overcrowding
  • Recent prescribed burns
  • Past agricultural practices
  • Lower vegetation density
  • Damages from storms

A decline in the vigor of weakened trees due to stress makes them more susceptible to secondary problems like insect infestations and disease outbreaks, hence further decline or death of dying trees.

Specific environmental factors contributing to tree discoloration can include:

  • Recent prescribed burns
  • Past agricultural practices
  • Lower vegetation density
  • Drought conditions
  • Damages from storms

Anyone involved in tree care must understand these factors and how they influence tree health.

Air Pollution

Air pollutants directly damage trees, negatively impacting their growth, reducing their survival rates, and potentially resulting in forests with sparser and stunted trees. Emissions of sulfur and nitrogen from anthropogenic activities contribute to the formation of acid rain, which deteriorates tree health by acidifying the soil and water, consequently affecting the organisms that trees rely on.

Temperature Extremes

Temperature fluctuations, such as unexpected cold snaps, spawn cellular damage to trees, affecting the bark, buds, and leaves. Symptoms of trees acted upon by low temperatures are identified by cracked bark, blackened leaves, and early leaf drop.

To prevent severe cold damage, appropriate measures need to be implemented, consisting of mulching, tree wraps, and selecting cold-hardy tree varieties.

9. Incorrect Pruning Practices

Pruning is a common maintenance practice for trees, but if done incorrectly, it augments the impact on a tree’s health and poor growth and discoloration. Pruning errors occasion irreversible damage to trees, and in severe cases, hence their death.

Over-pruning the crown reveals a tree’s delicate bark to excess sunlight, potentially evoking sunburn, weakening the tree’s structure, and resulting in irregular growth patterns.

Common Pruning Mistakes

Incorrect pruning techniques damage not only the aesthetic appeal of a tree but also its health. Pruning without a specific goal generates unnecessary harm to a tree or shrub. Topping, or cutting off the top of a tree, stresses the tree and compromises its structural balance.

Using dull tools for pruning creates rough cuts that rip or shred the bark, leading to unnecessarily large wounds.

Proper Pruning Techniques

To ensure the health and longevity of your tree, it’s crucial to adhere to proper pruning techniques. Proper pruning is essential for maintaining tree health, including judicious removal of dead, dying, or diseased branches to encourage vigor, and training young trees to promote a strong structure.

Disinfecting pruning tools with 70 percent rubbing alcohol before use on another plant is critical to prevent the spread of diseases, and ensuring tools are clean and sharp facilitates smooth cuts.

10. Overwatering and Root Rot

While watering is a crucial aspect of tree care, overwatering elicits a whole host of problems, including root rot. Overwatering produces:

  • Deprivation of necessary oxygen for tree roots
  • Suffocation of roots
  • Weakening of roots
  • Vulnerability to diseases such as root rot

Root rot in overwatered trees is often due to fungal infections, with Phytophthora being a notable pathogen in such conditions.

Signs of Overwatering

Overwatered trees display the following signs:

  • Leaves that turn light green or yellow
  • New growth that withers before it’s fully grown
  • A constantly wet area around the tree base exhibits a musty smell or fungal growth

These signs suggest overwatering, which precipitate root rot.

Overwatering leads to the development of a shallow root system, rendering the tree more vulnerable to drought stress and instability.


Preventing overwatering and subsequent root rot involves understanding the watering needs of the tree and adapting as necessary. Use a moisture meter to assess the two qualities crucial to tree health: overwatering prevention and ensuring soil has adequate drainage.

Before watering, check the soil moisture at the surface of the root zone and deeper with a probing tool, like a screwdriver, to assess the tree’s water needs. Ensure trees are not planted in wet areas and that the entire root zone drains after watering to avoid waterlogging and root diseases such as Phytophthora root rot.

What does tree rot or fungus look like?

Tree rot caused by fungus, specifically Basidiomycotina, results in dark brown and brittle wood that appears like cubes as it dries.

Are there seasonal patterns to tree discoloration?

Yes, tree discoloration exhibits seasonal patterns. For example, certain fungal diseases become more prevalent during humid summer months, leading to leaf discoloration. Similarly, nutrient deficiencies are more noticeable in spring or fall when trees are actively growing or preparing for dormancy.

What causes abnormal growth in trees?

Abnormal growth in trees can be caused by bacteria, viruses, insects, and environmental stress, leading to conditions such as galls, tumors, and burls. The altered state of these growths can persist even after the initial causal organisms are no longer present, impacting the tree’s vigor.

Can poor pruning cause discoloration in trees?

Yes, poor pruning practices can indeed lead to discoloration in trees. Improper pruning techniques, such as cutting branches at incorrect angles or removing too much foliage, can damage the tree’s vascular system and disrupt its ability to transport nutrients and water effectively. As a result, the affected areas may show signs of stress, including discoloration, such as yellowing or browning of leaves or needles. Additionally, exposing sensitive inner tissues to sunlight due to excessive pruning can lead to sunscald, further contributing to discoloration and damage. Proper pruning methods, conducted at the appropriate times and with care to preserve the tree’s health, can help prevent discoloration and promote vigorous growth.

Are there specific tree species more prone to discoloration?

Yes, certain tree species are more prone to discoloration than others. For example, trees like maples, oaks, and birches are susceptible to nutrient deficiencies and fungal diseases that can cause leaf discoloration.

What causes soil compaction and how is it prevented?

Soil compaction is caused by the pressure from people or machinery, which decreases the space between soil particles. To prevent this, it’s important to create designated paths and restrict activities like parking or driving around trees.

How are nutrient deficiencies and imbalances in trees addressed?

To address nutrient deficiencies in trees, you use soil drenches, foliar sprays, and tree injections, while also ensuring proper planting, fertilization, and watering for overall tree health.

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