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Guide to Plant Dormancy

Meredith Gaines — Oct 05, 2023

You’re most likely familiar with leaves falling off of certain trees when the weather starts to get cold–it marks the beginning of fall and signals an end to the warm weather. But have you ever wondered why leaves do this?

Falling leaves are just a small piece of a larger process called dormancy, which is a vital and necessary part of a tree’s life. And although it’s the most obvious signal of dormancy, there’s more to entering dormancy for a tree than just the leaves turning bright colors and falling off. Keep on reading to fully understand what dormancy means for your plants. 

Have a specific dormancy question? Skip ahead! 

Dormancy FAQs

Here are some of the most common myths and questions about dormancy when it comes to plants.

Why do trees go dormant?

The primary reason why trees go dormant is for their survival. The best way to think about this is just like a bear hibernates over the winter to survive, so do plants. This period of dormancy allows the plant to regroup and conserve energy while the outside conditions are not conducive to growing. Of course, not all plants go dormant, just like not all animals need to hibernate to survive.

Which trees go dormant?

Deciduous trees go dormant. The easiest way to know if a plant is deciduous is if the leaves all fall off in the wintertime and return in spring. Evergreen trees are the opposite of deciduous trees and will not go dormant. Evergreens often have thicker leaves that are waxy in texture. This waxy texture allows them to survive during the winter and last multiple seasons. 

Why is the tree I just bought losing leaves?

This can be for various reasons, but the leading cause is transition. If your seasons change or transition to another season, like fall, you will see your tree missing or actively losing leaves. Consider the time of year and where the plant is traveling from. Our farm is in South Carolina, so if you experience fall at a different time than where the plant grew, your plant will need a little extra time to adjust to the new schedule. Just like if you traveled a long way and are recovering from jet lag. 

What can dormancy look like?

Dormancy varies depending on the kind of tree that you have, but in general, you will notice the leaves gradually changing color and falling off the tree. There will be no flowers or fruit at this time, and if there are flowers and fruit, they will naturally fall off the tree as well. Expect the plant not to grow and go on "standby mode" during dormancy.

What should I be concerned about in dormancy?

The first step is knowing if your tree goes dormant or not. You should expect leaves on a decidious tree to look worn out. they might have spots or some tears on it. This is normal as the tree is no longer putting energy into the leaves and instead switching gears internally. Red flags are any injury, oozing or pests that you see on the tree. This could be on the stems and the trunk so as the leaves fall off take the opportunity to check the overall health of your tree.

How do I know if my tree is alive or is just dormant?

Dormancy can be deciving especially if your tree is lagging behind. A scratch test is a simple way to test your tree to see if its dormant or dead. To do this gently scratch of the outer layer of bark with a coin towards the base of your tree. This should revel a wet green-white looking tissue. This means your tree is alive and heathly, just dormant. If you see dry, black-brown tissue then your tree is dead.

Can I make my tree go dormant faster?

As much as we would like to try and control nature, it is just not in our ability. There is no way to artificially trigger dormancy unless you control all the factors like temperature, light, and day length. Dormancy is a necessary part of the tree's cycle and allows it to have the energy for flowers and fruits so it is well worth the wait. As your tree ages and matures, its dormancy window will start to become more predictable.

Do all trees go dormant at the same time?

No, dormancy is an internal process that is individual to that tree. Some trees enter dormancy late, while other trees enter dormancy earlier. The rate at which trees go dormant also varies, while some go dormant overnight and others are slow to transition. Even trees of the same kind and variety might act differently! As long as your trees that should go dormant are going dormant, that is all that you should be concerned about.

What triggers dormancy in trees?

Nature gives cues to plants via environmental factors that let them know when to go dormant. These cues are shorter days, less light, cooler temperatures, and pollinator changes. All of these factors work in tandem to let the tree know that fall is here, to go dormant, and when it is time to exit dormancy.

How will I know if my tree is coming out of dormancy?

Look closely at the stems. You should start to see tiny buds begin to emerge and grow. These buds can be for flowers, leaves, or both. These buds are a sure sign that dormancy is over! Another great way to know if your tree is coming out of dormancy is to look around at nature. Often, plants around you will start to emerge that tell you winter is over and spring is here, aka. The end of dormancy!

What is Dormancy? 

The best way to think of a tree in dormancy is to compare it to a bear in hibernation. Just as the bear needs rest during the winter and wakes up in spring, so does the tree. The process of dormancy is equally about survival as it is about energy conservation when wintertime resources are scarce. The bear is conserving energy and protecting itself when the weather conditions are too harsh in a similar way that the tree does. It just looks a bit different. 

Trees spend spring and summer harvesting energy and expending that energy to grow shoots, leaves, flowers and fruits. As the days get shorter and the sunlight dwindles, trees enter into dormancy or an “energy saving mode.” There are changes internally and externally that happen to the tree when this time comes. 

dormant tree

Internal changes

Internal changes during dormancy are occurring at the same time that the external changes are. Just because you can’t see the internal changes doesn't mean they aren't as important–they might even be more important than the external changes!

Here are some internal changes that occur: 

  • Growth dramatically slows or stops
  • Signals are sent to the leaves to stop harvesting energy
  • Sap will continue to flow, acting like antifreeze inside the tree & preventing damage

External changes

External changes are the most obvious to us when checking to see if a tree is entering dormancy or not. These are the visible changes we see on the outside of a tree.

Here are some external changes that occur:

  • The green pigment responsible for energy production from the sun will start to fade, revealing the red and purple pigments underneath that give us bright fall colors.
  • Left-over fruit is dropped and ready for harvest
  • Evergreen trees (ones that don’t drop all their leaves) will stop growing and drop some of their inner needles or leaves 

Dormancy in Different Plants

Dormancy won’t look the same across all plants. While a maple catches your eye with its brightly colored leaves, the evergreen nearby might be less showy, albeit just as busy! Even the dormancy period of a plant will change depending on location and that year’s weather patterns.

Take a look at our quick video to learn what to expect when your plants go dormant:

Deciduous Trees

Deciduous trees are the showiest when entering dormancy. The leaves on deciduous trees are meant to be seasonal and typically last for one year. They are usually on the thinner side and aren’t waxy like a holly leaf is. As a deciduous tree enters dormancy, expect its leaves to change color and drop completely, leaving the tree bare. 

leaves falling

Evergreen Trees

Evergreen trees get their namesake from the way they keep the majority of their leaves. Their leaves are thicker and more durable than deciduous leaves and might be in a needle form. Evergreens will lose leaves from time to time but never all at once, making them green, year-round. However, don't let the lack of leaf-drop fool you–they still have a period of dormancy–it’s just not as obvious as that of deciduous plants. 

evergreen tree

Entering and Exiting Dormancy

Entering dormancy

The timing will vary depending on where you live, the weather patterns that year, and of course, the specific plants you have. For most, expect dormancy to gradually occur for your trees when the temperatures start to drop. In northern climates like Minnesota, this might be as soon as early October. In Southern states like North Carolina, expect to see color change in late to mid November.

fall foliage

The best thing you can do during this transition to dormancy is to be consistent. Don’t stop watering altogether now that your trees are dropping leaves. Instead, water until the ground freezes in your area. While you might need to water less, you’ll still need to support your living plant. Be consistent with your fall care, and it will only help your garden come springtime! 

Exiting dormancy

Just like entering dormancy, exiting dormancy won’t happen overnight. When your plants do emerge from dormancy, expect a burst of growth. This might be a flower bud on a redbud tree or some new leaves emerging from your apple tree. 

flower bud

It’s perfectly normal for some trees to be a bit on the lazy side when emerging from dormancy. To help them out, have patience and start watering on a regular schedule. This is also a good time to start fertilizing to support the new flush of growth in spring. 

Some areas might experience late frosts or unexpected temperature dips during this time. If you live in one of these areas and notice your plants emerging from dormancy, it might help to protect the fragile, new growth. Do this by using a breathable fabric or frost blanket. And remember, even if some of your plants do get damaged, nature is strong and can often rebound.

And while dormancy largely relates to outdoor plants, indoor plants might experience a lull in growth during the winter months, as well. However, they shouldn’t experience leaf loss. If you’re ever unsure if your plant is dead or just dormant (we know it can be tricky to tell!), just lightly scratch the base of the bark with a coin or your nail to look at the inside. If it’s white and green, your tree is dormant, and if it’s dry and brownish-black, your tree is dead.

If you need further help troubleshooting, reach out to our plant experts for assistance.

frost on ground

Just because plants are entering dormancy doesn’t mean the outdoors have to be dull. Cooler weather brings a multitude of wonderful changes. So, get outside and enjoy the brilliance of nature, the fall colors, and maybe even raking some leaf piles! 

Be sure to check out our Regional Fall Planting Tips to prep your plants and set them up for springtime success! 

Meredith Gaines

Meredith's love for plants started at a young age, and only grew when she started working in the Desert Exhibit at the South Carolina Botanical Gardens and the Historic Filoli Estate in the Bay Area. After graduating from Clemson University (GO TIGERS!) with a degree in Biology and Horticulture, she found her niche in the FastGrowingTrees.com family as a horticulturist and has grown in her current role as Senior Plant Expert.

She currently resides in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and enjoys spending any time she can outdoors. She learns new things about plants every day and loves sharing her plant knowledge and tips with those around her. Her favorite plant is constantly changing, but her long-time favorites are peonies, oak trees, and ferns.

Questions? Contact Meredith at information@fastgrowingtrees.com.

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