University of Maryland Extension

Tree and Shrub Problems Not Caused by Disease or Insects (abiotic)

winter burn on cherry laurel leaves
Winter damage on cherry laurel

Key Points

Tree and shrub problems, to a large degree, are not due to diseases or insects. They are often referred to as abiotic (Latin word meaning “without life”) causes.

It may take a long time for abiotic problems to cause symptoms or a problem and sometimes it can appear that a plant died very suddenly, even overnight. But, by the time one notices that a tree or shrub is dying, it is often too late to correct the problem. It is important to recognize these symptoms early and try to correct the adverse conditions causing them.

General information about abiotic (not related to anything living) problems

  • Diagnosing abiotic plant problems can be difficult because often multiple factors are involved and plants can have symptoms very similar to a disease or insect infestation.

  • Determining the difference between the “symptom” and the “sign” of a problem is the first step in making a diagnosis. A “symptom” is an unnatural change in a plant’s appearance or growth caused by one or more factors. Example: wilting of leaves or early fall color. A “sign” is the actual presence of organisms such as insects, mites, or mushrooms. Examples: Insect droppings on leaves; the white coating on crepe myrtle leaves caused by the powdery mildew fungus.

    curled leaves
    Symptoms of drought-stressed leaves (leaf curl and scorch)

    Cottony camellia scale on undersides of leaves
    A sign of cottony camellia scale (white, waxy covering
    protecting eggs laid by the female scales)

  • Insect or disease injury may also be evident but not severe enough to be the primary cause of a plant problem. But, a stressed plant in combination with a disease or insect is very problematic.

  • Stressed plants are more susceptible to disease and insect problems. 

  • Typical distress symptoms of an abiotic problem may include very slow growth, poor foliage color, scorch, sparse growth, branch die-back, or even death of the plant. 

  • Careful site selection, proper planting, protecting trunks and roots from mechanical damage, watering during plant establishment, and during dry weather are some ways to protect plants from stress factors.

  • It is important to recognize stress symptoms early to prevent further decline.

  • Trees planted in natural areas and native soil have a much longer life-span than trees planted in a typical home or commercial landscape.

Trees and shrubs slowly dying  (decline)

Environmental (many are weather-related)

Cultural (how plants are taken care of) and Site Conditions


 Key for Diagnosing Abiotic Plant Problems

SymptomPossible Causes
Older leaves turning yellowEarly heat and drought stress
Early-stage of poor soil drainage
Nutritional problems
Normal deterioration of older foliage
Yellowing between veins of a leaf  (chlorosis)Soil pH problem
Very early stages of heat and drought stress
Leaf scorch (brown leaf edges)Heat and drought stress
Soluble salt damage
Poor soil drainage
Soil compaction
Leaves dropping while still green or beginning
To turn yellow
Heat and drought stress
Leaves twisting and curling (distorted)Herbicide damage
Branch diebackSevere drought stress
Severe soluble salt damage
Poor soil drainage
Girdling roots
Mechanical damage to trunk or stem
Changes in soil grade
Stunted, poor growth, lack of establishmentSoil compaction
Planted too deeply
Drought and heat stress
Excess mulch
Poor soil drainage
Root ball encased in wire cage or burlap
Decline and eventual death of established trees and shrubsGirdling roots
Mechanical damage of trunk or stem
Planted too deeply
Soil grade changes
Changes in water flow
Bark rotting at the base of the tree or shrubPlanted too deeply
Excess mulch
Girdling roots
Bark cracking along trunk

Mechanical root damage
Lower trunk damage
Girdling roots
Planted too deeply
Severe heat and drought stress
Frost cracking and sunscald
Lightning injury

Adapted from publication HG 201 Homeowner Landscape Series: Common Cultural and Environmental Problems in Landscapes, Authors: Dave Clement, Ph.D., Principal Agent, University of Maryland Extension and Mary Kay Malinoski, Principal Agent, University of Maryland Extension. And publication HG 86 Common Abiotic Plant Problems, Author: Raymond Bosmans, Professor Emeritus University of Maryland.

Edited by Jon Traunfeld, HGIC Director and University of Maryland Extension Specialist. Complied by Debra Ricigliano, HGIC.

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