Early Color Change Of Foliage: What To Do For Tree Leaves Turning Early

leaf change
Image by frankyleekf

By Kristi Waterworth

The brilliant colors of fall are a beautiful and eagerly-awaited marking of time, but when those leaves should be green because it’s still August, it’s time to start asking some questions. If you notice tree leaves turning early, there’s a good chance that something is very wrong with your tree’s situation. Early leaf color change is a signal of stress and you should treat it like a giant neon distress sign.

Early Color Change of Foliage

When your tree is so stressed from something in its environment that it starts to change colors, you’re witnessing a last stand of sorts. Your tree’s leaves start to change colors, even under normal conditions, due to a lack of chlorophyll. This can happen when the tree starts to prepare itself for winter, or it can happen when the tree or shrub perceives a threat to its well-being.


Many biologists believe that an early color change is an attempt of a tree to rid itself of insect pests, especially those that feed on the juices in the cells. These insects have evolved with these trees and shrubs, and understand that when the chemical process behind the leaves changing color begins, their meal ticket ends. Rather than feeding on other leaves, many will move on in search of a better food source.

In the case of tree leaves turning partially red too early, especially in maples, branch dieback is often to blame. Additionally, a nitrogen deficiency may be present.

Dealing with Stressed Out Plants and Early Leaf Color Change

In essence, leaves changing color too early is a defensive mechanism that allows the stressed out shrub or tree to eliminate at least one source of trouble. That’s really awesome, but what does it mean for you? It means you need to check your tree closely for signs of injury, including natural cracks and damage from lawn mowers. Ask yourself, did you water it through that dry spell during the summer? Did it get enough nutrients to help it grow? Is it, in fact, infested with bugs?

Once you’ve answered these questions, it’s easy to correct the conditions causing your early leaf color change. Look for any wounds and tend to them if you can, begin watering your tree more liberally when it gets dry, and check it carefully for signs of insect pests on a regular basis.

A color change in your tree isn’t the end of the world, it’s the tree’s way of telling you that it needs help badly.

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