LOST LEADER  (Chapter 44 - Pruning)


A lost leader is a dead terminal section of stem; not to be confused with loss leader -- the sales/marketing strategy. Lost leaders can be pruned and that is what I recommend, thus lost leadering is a type of pruning. Lost leaders are produced several different ways: (1) naturally and normally, (2) from insect damage, (3) from tissue damaged by adverse (less than optimal) growing conditions (e.g., ericoids, European beech, oriental maples, roses) and (4) mostly frequently from poor pruning (leaving too much of a stub above a node) thus manmade. The condition is more obvious on species with oppositely arranged stems. Paniculate hydrangea and viburnum specimens commonly manifest the manmade type.


A rather small number of species produce lost leaders normally and naturally – usually a reproductive stem that dies after completing its function. I find it surprising that this lost leader type is mostly ignored (both discussion and actual pruning). Practically all the specimens I see exhibiting lost leaders are au naturale (i.e., unpruned). Removing these last leaders from plants that produce them results in much better looking (cleaner) specimens. Plants that produce lost leaders include:

  • buttonbush

  • elderberry

  • ericoids (azaleas, blueberries, rhododendrons)

  • flowering raspberry

  • hydrangeas

  • lead plant

  • lilac

  • maples (some)

  • Peve Minaret (a cultivar of bald cypress)

  • raintree

  • roses (some)

  • rue

  • seven sons

  • sumac

  • tree peony

  • trumpet vine

  • viburnum

  • willow

  • wisteria

Several species of pine and spruce (esp. oriental and Serbian) commonly lose their terminal leader as a result of damage caused by certain insects. The burrowing larvae of these insects are more likely to kill smaller trees, but large specimens can have their growth shape affected; producing stubby or stunted plants that are sometimes referred to as “cabbage trees.” To control the problem, one must remove the infested portion of the terminal stem. Furthermore, a fall application of systemic insecticide to the underlying mulch bed should also be considered to kill the insects thus preventing them from climbing up and reinfesting the apical tissue the next spring. Removal of the dead terminal leader can be challenging both due to height and to be certain all the tissue containing the burrowing insect is removed. Infection and reinfection are more likely in areas with a high density of host plants.


There is another special insect damage that produces lost leaders. Namely cicada ovipositing, either from the annual (dog-day) version or the 13- or 17-year periodic cicadas. These true bugs oviposit (lay their eggs) in the young branch tissue. The stem tips (leaders) often die and fall from the tree. Those branches that do not die are left with a football shaped scar – visible for a few successive years – and the annual growth for the affected year is stunted on the afflicted branches.


WILL NOT TOLERATE WET SOIL (the SCOOBY DOO CONDITION, aka root rot)  (Chapter 105)

What I am really referring to is poor drainage. And it matters when the soil is wet. For many plants wet substrate in winter, especially late winter, is a kiss of death. Placement whereby one takes advantage of natural elevation changes and or creates raised beds may put a species in play, at least with respect to drainage, as well as helping to reduce the potential for damage. Moreover, if the soil in the location you are considering is high in clay avoid all of the following plants since they are inherently intolerant of wet soil and will be much more likely to suffer root rot.

  • aralia

  • bear’s breeches

  • bugbane

  • bulbs (esp. fall & winter)

  • ericoids (blueberries & relatives)

  • European beech

  • fir

  • flowering dogwood

  • lavender

  • lilies

  • pine

  • raspberry

  • yew




Most people have a sort of Disney World or Michael's craft store concept of how long plants flower. As I previously noted, the average period is perhaps a week, and many display for only a day or so. Very rarely do individual functional flowers persist for many weeks; rather the plants maintain flowers by replacement (i.e., they have an indeterminate floral arrangement and/or are remontant). Environmental conditions, habitat and cultivation technique may play a role in the actual display period. The period will definitely be shorter if conditions are hot, dry and windy.


So, why not longer? (1) the energy and resource investment to produce functional flowers is high, (2) to coincide with what is normally the optimal climatic conditions and (3) to synchronize with the presence and activity of associated pollinators, for those species with assisted pollen transfer.


The list of species, especially perennials, that can flower for a month or more is rather small (see below). But remember, for many species it is more than just flowers – although no longer functional, the spent flowers may be intact/persistent and visually appealing. While I love and appreciate flowers and flowering, because of the typical brevity I usually encourage people to give consideration to a longer lasting feature (i.e., leaves or fruit). Finally, for many species and cultivars, long flowering may require or be improved by deadheading. Species that can flower for a month or more include the following [includes suggestions from Big Sue Arnold, Lisa & Dan Burnham, Wendy Ford and Tess Park]


  • abelia

  • annuals (numerous)

  • asters (many, esp. aromatic)

  • black-eyed Susan

  • bloomerang lilac

  • blue-eyed grass

  • bush clover 'Gibraltar'

  • shrubby cinquefoil

  • clematis (some)

  • coneflowers

  • coreopsis

  • crapemyrtle (some)

  • day lilies (a select few)

  • false sunflower

  • garden phlox

  • geranium X  (esp. 'Rozanne' & 'Biokovo')

  • grasses (some)

  • hardy begonia

  • Himalayan lilac

  • hydrangeas

  • Indian pink (w/ deadheading)

  • Japanese anemone (esp. 'Bressingham Glow')

  • Joe pye weed

  • lamb's ears

  • mallows

  • mints (many, incl. basil, catnip, hyssop)

  • mullein

  • rose campion

  • rose of Sharon

  • roses (many)

  • Russian sage

  • seven sons (falsely so)

  • shasta daisy 'Becky' (w/ deadheading)

  • showy stonecrop

  • sneezeweed

  • spiderwort (esp. w/ deadheading)

  • sunflowers (many)

  • sweet bay magnolia

  • trumpet vine

  • vegetable garden (e.g., okra, tomatoes)

  • verbena (bonariensis & canadensis)

  • waterlilies

  • witchhazel