Rhododendron Winter Care: Preventing Cold Injury In Rhododendron Shrubs

Rhododendron bud trapped in ice
Image by Jan Herodes

By Kristi Waterworth

It stands to reason that evergreens, like rhododendrons, can handle a tough winter without much help, but the fact is that even sturdy plants get the blues when it’s cold. Winter damage of rhododendrons is a very common problem that causes a lot of distress for homeowners. Luckily, it’s not too late for preventative rhododendron winter care.

Care of Rhododendrons in Winter

Caring for your rhododendrons through the cold season is easier if you understand how these plants are damaged to begin with. Cold injury in rhododendron is caused by too much water evaporating from the leaves at once, without anything to replace it.

When cold, dry winds blow across leaf surfaces, they tend to take a lot of extra fluid with them. Unfortunately, in the winter, it’s not uncommon for this to happen when the ground is frozen solid, limiting how much water can be brought back into the plant. Without adequate water levels in their cells, the tips and even entire leaves of rhododendrons will wither and die.

Preventing Rhododendron Cold Damage


Rhododendrons attempt to protect themselves from winter dehydration by curling their leaves, allowing them to hang down. This mechanism is often effective, but there’s even more you can do to help protect your rhodies from winter damage.

Because rhododendrons root much more shallowly than other plants, it’s extra important to keep a thick layer of mulch over this delicate system. Four inches of an organic mulch, like wood chips or pine needles, is often adequate protection from the cold. It’ll also slow water evaporation from the ground, helping your plant stay hydrated. Make sure to give your plants a long, deep drink on warmer days so they have a chance to recover from cold snaps.

A windbreak made from burlap, lattice or a snow fence can help slow those drying winds, but if your plant is already planted in a protected area, it should be safe enough from winter damage. A little bit of winter damage is ok; you’ll just want to cut out the damaged sections early in the spring so your rhododendron can get back into shape before the bleached leaves become an eyesore.

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