Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Marvelous Marcescence or Love Those Lingering Leaves

Ostrya virginiana (American Hophornbeam)
Most deciduous trees lose their leaves in autumn, but Oak (Quercus), Beech (Fagus), Hornbeam (Carpinus), Ostrya (Dancing Tree) and  Witch Hazel (Hamamelis)  are an exception.  They hold their leaves until spring when the new emerging leaves push them off.
come spring newly emerging leaves will push the old leaves off the tree
This holding onto leaves is referred to as marcescence and no one is absolutely sure why some trees hold onto their leaves while others don't.  It may be that it deters foraging of young buds and branches by deer (dead leaves are not tasty)  or it may aid in protecting the tree from water or temperature stress during the winter.

You might have seen them in a nearby woodland,  like these beeches along the trail at Percy Warner Park in Middle Tennessee.  I love seeing a 'grove' of them  marching down the hillside and  fluttering in the winter wind.

  Even on the grayest days they create depth in our other wise two dimensional winter woods.

They look especially beautiful back lit on a snowy winter's day. 

This morning I noticed this beautiful beech in full marvelous marcesence outside the Radnor Lake visitor center.

Early settlers used the springy beech leaves to stuff their mattresses 

The leaves still had streaks of  summer green and were dry, yet, springy to the touch.  Out of curiosity I tried to tug one of them from the branch; it would not budge.  I've noticed this same  springy quality to  the clinging leaves on my Dancing Tree (seen in first photo) and on several of the witch hazels in my garden. 

I love the  Dancing Tree's marvelous clinging leaves and  American Beech's leaves are so attractive that I will plant one  or two in my garden,  but, I wish the witch hazel,  Hamamelis x intermedia 'Diane' did not hang so stubbornly to  her leaves.  Only once has 'Diane'  dropped her leaves before blooming and  that time it took several  arctic blasts to freeze dry the leaves right off her. Barring extreme winter weather,  there are two choices open to me.  I can accept the leaves or I can cut them off!  I haven't decided which it shall be.  But, if you're driving by this weekend and notice someone up on a ladder, that will be me, cutting away those marvelous marsescent leaves.

Last winter with marscecent leaves still clinging
A girl's gotta do what she's gotta do for beauty!


Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone."


  1. Thanks for explaining the word and its meaning, dear Gail. I had never heard it before, but have noticed the pretty reddish tan leaves still hanging on certain trees. I knew about the oaks but not the others. Diane will be beautiful with or without the leaf-cut!

  2. The beech leaves hang on all winter so we can look out the window to see which way the wind is blowing without having to go outside.

  3. I think our H. virginiana leaves drop in the winter. But they were growing at our old house and I can't get over there to check right now.

  4. Dear Gail, A very informative post ... you are so knowledgeable! I wouldn't remove those leaves. I think they look beautiful in your photographs. P. x

  5. I really enjoy the leaves that remain through the winter, especially when the sun hits them like in your first image. They give the forested areas some real visual interest.

  6. I remember hearing this word on your blog a few years ago; for the first time I started to notice this phenomenon on certain trees in the winter. Whatever the scientific explanation, I love seeing some leaves still on the trees in the winter! Diane is a beauty with or without her leaves.

  7. I have a new word, marcescence...tough to spell (had to look back a couple times) I love the beech we have here. There is a spot along the route we drive to Greenville that we call Sherwood Forest, it is full of beech trees.
    I think the leaves staying on to protect the young buds is a great theory.

  8. I like them...and it's just another reminder that brown is a color too :-) Love the Witch Hazel...so very lovely!

  9. Informative indeed. I love the curving road photo. People used to stuff mattresses and couches with spanish moss too.

  10. I didn't know that word and must now pay attention and see if I see any trees showing that behavior. Thanks for teaching me something new and interesting!

  11. I love the word macrescense. I wrote about beech trees and their habit of holding on to their trees. I spoke to one tree expert and he said that it is immature beech trees that tend to hand on to their leaves. A matter of hormones. Who knew trees had hormones.

  12. I love seeing these brown leaves on trees in winter!!

  13. Thank you, Gail! I can NEVER remember that word. xoxo

  14. Hi Gail,

    I have all three trees in my garden and I love them.
    My particular favourite is a copper beech hedge which I planted when I first came to the farmhouse.
    I love it when the leaves rustle in the wind :)

    Got to get those leaves OFF that gorgeous witch hazel :)

  15. Well, thank you for that new word and new wrinkle in my brain :-) That's what I love about gardening .... always learning something new.

  16. In most cases, I find marcescence unsightly, but not in the case of beeches. I'd love to have a beech hedge loaded with dead leaves, whispering in the winter wind....

  17. Thanks Gail for reminding me what this phenomenon is called. We have been out walking in the woods lately and see some oaks with leaves, although not all the oaks it seems? and the alternate leafed dogwoods with leaves clinging. I knew some trees did this but couldn't remember which ones or why.

  18. Loved the post, and I always enjoy the beech leaves this time of year.

    And good for you for finding a term for it: marcescence (geez, never heard of that nor had my gardening companion...)


  19. I have a beech hedge and I love the way it sort of slips into spring foliage without me noticing - one minute brown the next fresh green

    My witch hazel lost it leaves ages ago and isnt in flower yet - though this is its first year and I am hoping it is OK

  20. Our wooded area is filled with some of these trees. They are the only leaves visible above ground. I like how they catch the light and glisten with ecru hues.

  21. I have a laurel oak that does the same thing. When its leaves drop I know for sure that spring is on its way. Thanks for the new word! I'd never heard it before.

  22. My Witch Hazel holds tight onto her leaves too but the flowers smell so marvelous that I just accept it. Once I tried to strip the leaves and they were on so tight flowers started coming off too so I left them. I love Beech Tree leaves in winter.

  23. Thanks everyone for your comments.

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