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What Causes A Magnolia To Look Dead

Ask the Expert: mature magnolia tree in northeast looks dead mature tree has been blooming beautifully. last year I got only leaves, this year it looks dead. the only thing I did different was to put yard leaves around base of tree last fall. Tracy

I don’t recommend piling leaves up around the base of any tree. If you want to use leaves as a way to mulch your tree, create a saucer of leaves that are not stacked against the truck of the tree. Think of a cup and saucer. The saucer is higher at the edges than it is when the cup sets.

However, I don’t think the leaves necessarily are the contributing factor for the decline in the magnolia. How long has the magnolia been planted and do you know what kind of magnolia it is? Have you noticed any funny growth on the tree? There are a few diseases that could be causing this problem. If you can send me photos of the tree, I might be able to tell if a disease is the problem. Get photos from different angles and different parts of the tree.

In the mean-time, take your fingernail and scrape a few branches and the trunk. If you see any signs of green the magnolia may still be alive.


  1. charles min says:

    I have a magnolia tree in my front lawn for more than 30 years. Because of the dry weather in California last year, I water it less than usual. However the maple tree is doing very well. But the leaves on the magnolia are all turn into brown. Only in a matter of several weeks. i have check the tree trunk and found out there are some bugs crawling under. I think the tree is infected by the bug. Is the tree still savable?

  2. Hi Charles,

    Sunscald usually occurs during hot, dry weather. Also called leaf scorch, it is caused by a lack of moisture in the leaves. Water evaporates from the leaves in a process called transpiration. As it evaporates, it is rapidly replaced as the plant absorbs and distributes water. If the weather is very hot and sunny, however, the water sometimes evaporates more quickly than it can be replaced. The tree is still savable. If it’s been dry, start regular deep watering.

  3. 'Richie Magnuson' says:

    Mid Summer last year our Big Magnolia got the bug called Scale.
    It drained the sap from the tree. It became infested with a Black Wasp too.
    I sprayed it down with Neem Oil several times then even tried to wash leaves and branches with Dawn Soap through a Pressure washer. But not a Bud on the tree this spring.
    I’m so P.O.ed. A lot of wor to save but looks like Time does not Heal all.

  4. Jamie Woods says:

    Hi Richie,
    It sounds like your Magnolia has had quite the time! If your trunk and branches still appear to be healthy, I would not give up on it just yet. It may take it some time to completely recover. Good luck!

  5. we transplanted a small magnolia and now it is brown on the top 8/10ths of the tree. Is there anything I can do to save it at this point? We have watered it a lot, but might have to do more?

  6. Jamie Woods says:

    What kind of Magnolia do you have? Do the leaves turn brown and fall off immediately? This could indicate an iron deficiency. When you water, make sure you are keeping the soil evenly moist and water the entire root zone.

  7. Hi I have just transplanted 10 magnolias from my sister in laws garden to mine my husband pulled them all out by hand to my dismay and they have been planted for a month now and look like they have steadily declined. We have been watering daily and have put cow manure on them but all the leaves are going brown and they look to be dying please help

  8. Jamie Woods says:

    Hi Em,
    When you replanted the Magnolias, did they have a decent sized root ball? The best way to see if they are dead is to scratch some of the bark of the trunk or stem. If it is green, your trees are still alive, and might pull through. If not, they are probably a loss.

  9. Anna Zes says:

    My neighbor is nosy and rude. She tells me not to water my own magnolia trees because they are old and deep rooted. She says I will kill the trees if I water them, and waste water as nothing I do will help them. I want some expert advice, please. thank you

  10. Jamie Woods says:

    Hi Anna,
    It is perfectly fine and acceptable to water established Magnolias, especially if the temperatures are very high and there are been very little or no rainfall. You will want to deep water them by using a slow hose over 20 minutes to make sure the roots get a good soaking. The frequency will depend on the temperature. If it is 70-80 degrees, once a week should be fine. If it’s 80-90 degrees, water twice weekly and if it is over 90, you may want to water them 3 times a week. If the soil is allowed to dry out during hotter months, it can stress Magnolias out. It sounds like you know what’s best for your trees, and I would just continue to care for them the best way you see fit. Good luck!

  11. Jennifer Briggs says:

    Hi, my gardener planted a star magnolia in my courtyard. It got very hot and it didn’t get enough water. It never established, leaves turned brown, buds never bloomed, and now it has no leaves but the branches are green. It was just transplanted in a pot. I want to save this tree. Suggestions? Thanks, Jen

  12. Jamie Woods says:

    If the branches are still green, there may still be hope for your Magnolia. I would remove anything that appears to be damaged, and begin preparation for spring. Fertilize this spring with a slow-release fertilizer and make sure your tree gets the water it needs.

  13. Looking for help! I had 3 magnolias planted 2 years ago and they have done great! About 3 weeks ago I noticed the very top of the middle magnolia turned brown, and now an entire section is brown. I don’t see any obvious sign of disease or bugs (however, I’m not an expert). We had a short spell of colder than normal weather this past winter. I am so worried – I love my magnolias. I have a picture but I’m not sure how to share it.

  14. Jean,

    It could be cold damage. Watch them for the next couple of weeks. As long as the rest of the tree is still putting on new growth you should be fine.

  15. We are in Canada. Had 2 Magnolia trees planted last summer. We had a longer cold winter than usual. Neither tree has an buds (for leaves or flowers on it). Should I just be patient?

    They are both still alive.

  16. Jeffrey Balch says:

    Magnolia flower buds are very sensitive to cold, and are not likely to flower in colder climates. Make sure your trees are planted in full sun to promote flower growth.

  17. Hi we move to a new house and found an old magnolia grandiflora in the back of the hedge.
    It is a good size but has no leaves on any of the branches.
    Only on the tips of long leggy old wood. We have moved into the sun and fed and mulched.
    Should I prune it right back?

  18. Dani James says:

    Hi Toby! You might check to see if the plant is still alive. You can do this by taking your finger and scraping the branches. If the tissue underneath is green or has a green cast to it, the tree is still alive. After that, you can prune the dead branches until you reach the green tissue.