Sandy to blame for white pine trees changing color

05/17/2013 5:00 PM |

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Sandy-damaged white pine trees on Main Road in Jamesport. Experts say white pine owners should look for green growth under needles that have been turned an orange-brown or yellow color from salt exposure during the October storm.

Spring is in full bloom, and the region’s grasses and hardwoods are greening up accordingly. But some pine trees are not, and experts say it’s due to the salt carried inland during Sandy.

White pines, indigenous trees popular in landscaping across the North Fork and all Long Island, are still showing the aftereffects of October’s superstorm. For worried homeowners who fear their decorative pines might be dead, experts say most of the salt-burned trees should rebound in time.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in quite a while,” said Melissa Daniels, president of the Long Island Nursery and Landscaping Association. “It is going to be worse in areas close to the road and close to the shores.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, says discoloration of the white pines’ needles is either orange-brown or yellow, depending on the amount of salt exposure.

“The fact the homeowners are observing damage far away from any body of water is not surprising,” Mr. Amper said. “Salt spray can be carried way inland by high winds.”

The further your pine is from the coast, the more yellow, rather than brown, the needles will appear, he said.

Ms. Daniels said this winter’s blizzards didn’t help the pines, either.

“They were using more salt than they normally would on the roads, and that splashes tree bottoms,” she said.

Some smaller shrubs, such as arborvitae, rhododendrons and mountain laurel, were also affected by the salt spray, Ms. Daniels said.

“We didn’t have a lot of rain with the storm, which would have washed it out,” she said. “You really had to have watered them after the storm.”

If white pines are displaying the brown or yellow burning effect, there isn’t anything for landowners to do but wait, the experts say.

“My short advice: Be patient,” Mr. Amper said. “Pine trees are extremely resilient. They look a lot worse than they feel most of the time.”

Most white pines will shed half their needles this year, Mr. Amper said. “You would see the first signs that the needles are being restored next year, but the tree won’t be fully restored until the spring of 2015.”

“Wait it out until the fall and see if they send out any new growth,” Ms. Daniels suggested, before starting to dig up and discard damaged pines.

“We haven’t had to replace any yet,” said Hugo Rios Jr., landscaping manager for Hugo Rios Masonry and Landscaping in Riverhead, though Mr. Rios said many of his clients are not in immediate coastal areas.

“Some of the trees were really yellow. They dropped the needles that were yellow, and now we are starting to see some green come through,” Mr. Rios said. “They seem to be getting better.”

Mr. Amper said that if a property owner sees bark beetles in a pine tree, that’s a sign the tree has probably died, and “only then is cutting it down justified.”

There are a variety of bark beetles and other trunk-damaging pests in white pines.

“For the most part people do not see the actual insects themselves, but rather the evidence of past or current attack,” said Dan Gilrein, entomologist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. Bark beetle damage usually happens after the tree been subjected to some other stress or injury, such as salt spray or flooding, he said.

One example is the black turpentine beetle. Adult beetles are dark reddish-brown to black, and about one-third of an inch long, Mr. Gilrein said.

“One sign of attack is the resulting ‘pitch tubes’ and sap flow one sees on attacked trees,” he said. “As for the salt-damaged white pines, we suggest homeowners re-examine the trees’ growing conditions, perhaps bringing in a consulting arborist if needed, and provide the best care possible particularly during this year of recovery.”

The protected Long Island Pine Barrens areas stretching from eastern Brookhaven Town to Southampton Town are made up predominantly of pitch pine, an indigenous tree that is extremely resilient to salt spray, Mr. Amper said. The Pine Barrens lost more trees to high winds than to salt spray.

“If there is another storm, people should know to turn their sprinklers on, and water the salt out of the ground [and off the trees] if they can,” Ms. Daniels said. “If you are going to replant trees and live near a shore area, I would not recommend replacing them with a white pine.”

cmiller@timesreview.com