marcescent [ mahr-SES-uhnt ] adjective: remaining attached although withered (leaves, petals, sepals)
As much as we may delight in the colors of autumn foliage, we may not find equal pleasure in raking up the fallen leaves, as it is often not a task once and done. Deciduous trees shed their leaves in autumn as they prepare for the severity of winter. Leaves fall off without harming the tree because a separation (abscission) layer forms between the leafstalk (petiole) and the branch. Yet, some trees seem to be laggards and hold on to their dead leaves until new growth dislodges them in spring. These marcescent leaves persist because the separation layer fails to form or complete formation.
Is this cause for concern? Leaf marcescence in winter is most common to specific species: Carpinus caroliniana (American hornbeam), Fagus grandifolia (American beech), Hamamelis (witch hazels), Ostrya virginiana (Eastern hop-hornbeam) and Quercus (oaks). Dead leaves may persist on younger trees or the lower branches of more mature trees, most often oaks. However, dead leaves that appear during the growing season are most likely an indication of a stressed or diseased branch or tree or insect damage (see Managing Cicada Damage to Trees) and should be examined.
Why do some trees retain their leaves in winter? Weather may be a factor when species other than those mentioned above experience marcescence, but no one knows what benefit it is for those trees that routinely exhibit this characteristic. Some suggest it is a defense mechanism against browsing deer. Others speculate that spring leaf drop decomposes in time to release nutrients during the plant’s growth period. What is known, is that for some species, it is a natural occurrence and some of us will have to break out our rakes again in spring.
Salisbury KV. 2014. Why Do You Just Keep Me Hanging On? PennState Extension. (accessed December 2, 2020).