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My Shrub’s Dead, Right?

January 18, 2011
Nandina defoliated & Undead 'Til Spring

Nandina defoliated & Undead ‘Til Spring

Wondering how to tell if your plant is dead?

(original post from January 18, 2011)

There’s nothing like a defoliated evergreen in January to make our gardens look especially awful. Quite frequently evergreens are selected specifically because they add winter interest to the garden. So, when they decide to follow the lead of their deciduous cousins and go naked for the winter, our gardens become particularly unappealing. And, sadly, many a new gardener wonders what in the world they did wrong and how in the world they’ll afford to replace all those dead twiggy things throughout their beds.

I’m here to give you hope & ways to determine if your plant is actually alive and what to do when to reinvigorate it.

When we had an early November freeze in Seattle, client calls and emails began rolling in desperate for help understanding why their gardens were dying when we had selected plants that typically do just fine in really cold weather.

In many cases, I found myself reminding clients that some shrubs are semi-evergreen in our climate. Shrubs like Lonicera ‘Lemon Beauty’ and Abelia ‘Confetti’  will hold foliage and look fantastic through our milder winters, but when we get hit by an early cold snap or several successive freezes they’ll shed leaves fast, protecting their inner assets.  When these guys lose their leaves, I don’t much worry.

But, when plants like Sarcococca and Nandina begin a big leaf drop mid-winter, I get a little more worried. As I mentioned last week, my own Sarcococca has defoliated quite a bit, but the plants are fine & smell lovely.  My Cotoneaster lacteus is another story. Every leaf and every berry was severely burned in the cold; the birds got nadda to eat from it this winter, and I’m beginning to wonder what it’ll look like come spring bud break. Will it be an opportunity to try something new in its spot? My Nandina has taken a bit of a hit, dropping a few leaves but holding its skeleton-like petioles. My client’s description of her Nandina, on the other-hand, had me concerned.

Following our first freeze, I got a frantic email that all of her Nandina was dead. Sure, in a new planting I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two plants give up the ghost, but all of one genus plus a number of other plants? Yipes! We set up a date, and I dropped by to help her review her plants.

Yep, her Rosemary bit the dust. Not a huge surprise; it happens almost randomly every winter. Her Sarcococca looked better than mine & smelled great. Even her Daphne was barely leaf-burned while mine is fully defoliated. Her Abelia and Lonicera, too, had performed as expected — half-clothed in leaves. But, all of her Nandina domestica looked awful — not dead, but certainly without its lovely foliage, which is something we had planned to see all winter long. Yet, nearby, her Nandina ‘Gulf Stream’ had barely lost a leaf.

Scratching up Life from Under the Bark of Defoliated Nandina

Scratching up Life from Under the Bark of Defoliated Nandina

We began by looking at any patterns in the garden. The Nandina under the eaves (which means they require hand watering in winter) looked a bit defoliated. The ones nearest the driveway, surrounded by cold stone, asphalt and gravel, were the worst of the bunch. But, none were dead.

So, how did I figure this out?

First, I looked at the plant, which had lots of color to the stems. I tugged very gently on the stalks, which held fast in the moist, loose soil. Then, I scratched the stem, which revealed succulent, living cells white and oozing with moisture. It’s Alive!

My client breathed a heavy sigh of relief. All was not lost.

To test your shrubs: Try the steps above. Don’t yank on the stems hard to uproot the plant. A very gentle pull can help you determine if the plant is rooted in. Too, don’t scratch off a lot of bark. The living part of the plant is just under the bark layer; a tiny scratch can be very revealing. For very small-twigged shrubs, it can be difficult to tell what’s what. Try to find a larger stem near the base of these plants to help you decide if there’s life in them-thar shrubs.

Next steps: Continue to watch the plants. Winter is far from over. In early spring we will prune the defoliated Nandina plants with cuts alternating in height. With Nandina, we want to encourage new growth from the roots, but we also want to try to encourage a bit of growth from the taller stems for height. We won’t make our cuts until the chance of a last hard freeze have past. Cutting now may stimulate new growth, which is very susceptible to freeze damage. Sadly, this means she has to look at the naked twigs for a few more weeks.

The good news: Well, besides the fact that everything is still alive, her dwarf conifers, evergreen Carex, brilliant Sedums, landscape stones and glass, and more are providing interest, structure and even fragrance in her winter spaces.


  1. Duston says:

    These are both very good tests to check if your plant is dead…we get a lot of the same questions and concerns that you mentioned here about whether or not our customer’s plants are alive.

  2. […] Nandina: I adore Nandina. For the most part, it’s a consistently beautiful evergreen shrub with multi-colored foliage, blooms and berries. Fortunately, it’s also a cane grower, so when it has a defoliation year like this one, cut it hard to the ground to encourage new growth from the base. Or, try a series of alternating cuts to nodes on existing canes that are alive. Odds are, it’ll sprout right out. […]

  3. ann says:

    Would you answer my question? I just planted two Nandina Domesticas (about 4 feet tall) two weeks ago. I watered every day for the first week. Then we got a lot of heavy rain for about four days, so I have not watered for three days. One Nandina is losing leaves–about 25 – 40 leaves so far. Should I water or what? Everything else is still pretty wet as the temps are around 70 degrees or lower. Please help. Thanks

  4. Ann – There are any number of things that could be causing leaf drop on your Nandina. Without being on site to truly assess the situation, we can’t advise whether you need to water more or hold off on watering. If the soil is wet in the root zone of plants, you may not need to add additional water. In fact, overwatering can also cause problems for plants. But, your plant’s rapid decline may have to do with how it was planted, if there is something else wrong with it, soil issues, or any number of other issues that have nothing to do with the water situation. If you’re stumped, get a consultant on site to help you really figure out what’s going on in your space. Good luck!

  5. Thomas says:

    I cut my perimeter shrubs back too much. It’s November now, and they are still brown. Some of the bushes show no green at all. Have I killed them or is it a possibility thet they will come back during a harsh Ohio Winter? The plants are about eighteen years old. Should I just rip them out and replant or wait until next year?

  6. Thomas, it’s hard to know without seeing the shrubs in person. Given you’re heading into winter, it might be worth waiting to see what happens in spring. Now’s probably not the best time to plant new shrubs. Try the finger-scratch test in early spring if you’re getting anxious. Good luck!

  7. LEE says:

    My Nandina looks burned (leaves and berries) now that winter is over. Will it green up again?

  8. Lee, did you try scratching the bark as the article suggests? That may tell you if the shrub survived or not. If it did live, new growth should emerge as spring continues to ramp up.

  9. Ann Shaffer says:

    Bought and planted gorgeous Nandina Domestica bushes, about five feet high ($100 each) last April. Now they look like Charlie Brown’s Xmas tree. They are solid in the grown and a scrape on the barks says they are still alive. i did not pay $100 for a 5′ tree only to cut it to the ground! is this all I can do? If not, they are still under warranty and I will get my money back and plant shorter plants and cover in winter. Is cutting to the ground all I can do? thanks.

  10. Ann – Sorry to hear your plants took a big hit over the winter, but this does happen with Nandina in many winter locations, so it isn’t a big surprise to hear. A full renovation may be necessary, or give the plants a chance to recover and see if they sprout from above. It’s spring now, so if they’re going to show signs of putting on new growth from nodes on the stem, it should be happening now(ish). (I say “-ish” because location makes all the difference, and I don’t know where you are. And, performance may vary by variety, and there are many cultivars of Nandina out there.) If they do sprout from an upper branch node, they may not stay bushy below. Good luck!

  11. Thanks for the Nandina info. I was thinking about what to do with mine and you pretty much covered what I thought was best! Just want to say to others who may not want to cut to the ground….they grow back quickly- no worries! You can let then grow in to shaggy bushes or keep the canes clean and have them bush out at the top too. Very cheerful!

  12. Thanks for sharing Becky & thanks for joining us!

  13. Anna says:

    Hello, I too have a sad looking Nandina! I got it in the reduced section of a garden centre last year as it looked a little sad.. I planted it in a huge terracotta pot and it’s been lovely up until a few months ago.. It’s now completely brown and I’m convinced that it’s dead!

    Should I try pruning it at all? Taking off the dead leaves and berries or just leave it be?

    I’ve scratched the bark and it’s yellow inside?

    Any advice would be gratefully received as I’d love to save my little bargain plant. ????

  14. Anna, Thanks for writing in. It may bounce back from the roots or stems if there’s still life in them. If it doesn’t show signs of life soon this spring, it’s probably done for.

  15. Marie Stepanek says:

    It is late Sept. and one side of my nandina has turned brown. The leaves are soft. It has been doing well.

  16. Marie, sorry to hear part of your Nandina is browning out. It could be due to any number of reasons. Check the length of the stem that’s browning; it may be that there’s a break or other mechanical damage that caused the problem. Did you (or anyone else) spray (including pets spraying their urine) on the side of the plant. That could cause it. Or, it could be that the plant is simply on the way out. Be sure it is well watered until regular rains resume (assuming you’re in the west where it’s dry, dry, dry!) Hope this helps. Thanks for writing in!

  17. Vicky says:


    My nandina are two years old. We have had cold weather for about a month and the leaves turned completely brown. No green and no beautiful red berries either. Are they done for?

  18. Vicky,

    Sorry to hear it. Did you try the trick we described in the article where you scratch the bark to see if it has “wick”? Try that. Too, you might wait to see if anything comes up from the roots in fall. Berries following flowering, so lack of fruits isn’t necessarily due to your cold weather. Good luck!

  19. Marie Nesius says:

    Appreciate all your advice re nandinas. Many of mine have brown leaves or fallen leaves. Some stems look as tho they have been chewed. Are they susceptible to deer damage?

  20. Marie, thanks for your appreciation. Nandina doesn’t tend to be a deer favorite, but deer may try nibbling on just about anything to give it a try. This time of year Nandina can look pretty darn ratty in many areas. Usually, if they’re still alive, they’ll bounce back with the spring surge. Cutting out the dead leaves and stems may help with the aesthetic too. Good luck!

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