Salt spray damage to vegetation in Currituck County following the recent Nor’easter

[Submitted photo from NC Cooperative Extension]

Have you noticed your trees and shrubs starting to turn brown and you’re worried that something is killing them? If you’ve seen the browning within the past week (May 16 – May 20, 2022), there’s a good chance the damage was due to salt spray.

After the early May Nor’easter, we saw excessive browning of trees and shrubs here in Currituck, especially along the sound. What makes this damage worse than past storms appears to be the dry spring period, coupled with the 5 day period of sustained winds over 20 mph and relatively light rainfall. Previously, similar storm conditions have been documented as recently as 2006 in New England1and damage was most severe on conifers2.

So how do you know if your tree/shrub damage is from salt spray? Our first indicator is the timing of damage. Salt damage is usually seen one to two weeks after a major storm. The next sign is damage to a wide variety of plants. Normally, diseases and pests damage one type of plant; damage is rarely observed in several plant families.

The most apparent sign is damage to the north side of the plant (see image above). Strong northeast winds push salty sound and ocean air over plants, causing leaves to scorch at the edges. If you go to the opposite side of the tree, you should notice a reduction in the salt browning effect.

The next logical question is, “Will my plant die?” Generally no, but it depends on the species of plant and the duration of exposure2. However, regardless of species, damaged trees and shrubs can be stressed by salt spray, making them more susceptible to disease and pest pressure while they recover.

To combat this, be sure to water your plants, especially when it’s hot and dry, and avoid fertilizing affected plants or the area around them. Most fertilizers are salt formulations which can aggravate salt spray damage3. Ultimately, most trees and shrubs will outgrow the damage within a year.

For more information or questions on other horticulture-related topics, please contact Adam Formella by phone at 252-232-2261 or by email at [email protected]

Quotes

1. Griffiths, ME (2006). Accumulation of salt fog and damage to heathland plants associated with a dry tropical storm in southern New England. Journal of Coastal Research, 22(6), 1417–1422. http://www.jstor.org/stable/30138406.

2. Wyman, D. (1939). Saltwater damage to woody plants resulting from the hurricane of September 21, 1938. Bulletin of Popular Information (Arnold Arboretum, Harvard University), 7(10), 45–52. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42962198.

3. Oktay, S. (2011). Salt Spray like a Margarita. UMass Boston News. https://www.umb.edu/news/detail/salt_spray.

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