Weekend Getaway to find the Native Silky Camelia (Stewartia malacodendron) in Bloom 

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

Last May, I planned a short weekend trip with my husband to try and find the native Silky Camelia (Stewartia malacodendron) in bloom at the Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve[1] (pronounced Heaven wood) in Brunswick County, near the coast of North Carolina. The Silky Camelia is the signature plant of this 175-acre nature preserve which is an example of Bottomland Hardwood Forest and Wetland Habitats of the Coastal Plain. Fifteen trails cross these diverse habitats. Our home base was a Bed and Breakfast in Southport, North Carolina even though Wilmington was probably closer; Southport is a quaint town with lots of restaurants and on the same side of the river as the preserve. I first heard of this native gem during a virtual lecture on NC Coastal Ecology by Amy Mead (Area Natural Resources Agent) on November 5, 2021 (part of the Carolina Backyard Naturalist Program hosted by N.C. Cooperative Extension Agents Matt Jones and Sam Marshal).

Photograph of flowering Silky Camelia at the Ev-Henrood Nature Preserve in bloom on May 14, 2022. Looking out at marsh near the Marina at Southport, NC. Photographs by Wendy Diaz, May 2022.

The exact timing of the peak bloom depends on several factors mainly the weather (give or take one week), amount of sun exposure and latitude. Generally, they flower in mid-Spring, around Mother’s Day, along the south coast and late Spring farther north-my friend saw the blossoms on a kayak trip at Merchant’s Mill Pond on May 26, 2022.

Silky camelia in bloom on May 26, 2022 near Merchant’s Mill Pond, NC. Photo courtesy of Wanet Sparks.

We picked a very ‘wet weekend’ and found one Silky Camelia bush after climbing over fallen trees (some trail junctions are not well marked) on May 14, 2022 on Stewartia Loop of the David Sieren Learning Trail at Ev-Henwood. A powerful thunderstorm the night before, jettisoned a lot of blossoms to the forest floor unfortunately but nevertheless I was delighted to see many intact and beautiful white-blossoms delicately adorned with rain drops and round perfect spherical buds still on this spreading shrub. This weekend turned to be, despite the weather, another successful botanical trek to see North Carolina’s outstanding floral display! (I wrote about a similar weekend trip to the mountains in 2021 to see the rhododendrons[2]). After, I took a few photographs my husband was anxious to head back to the car as dark clouds rolled in. On the way out of the Preserve, we noticed another shrub with abundant blossoms near the entrance as well.

Top: Silky camelia blossom Middle: fallen Silky Camelia blossoms on forest floor, newly opened blossom, blossoms Bottom: Buds on Silky Camelia branches and single round bud of Silky Camelia

History of the Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve

The Ev-Henwood Preserve is a former farm along Town Creek, a tributary to the Cape Fear River, in rural Brunswick County which was acquired from the former owner, Mr. Troy Henry by the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in 1991. In 2005, 64 acres was placed under a conservation agreement with Coastal Land Trust in partnership with UNCW[3]. Mr. Henry named the Preserve after combining his maternal (Evans) and paternal (Henry) family names. The land was in his family almost continuously from the 1790’s. It was also used for logging of pine forests (for lumber and shingles) and crops of corn, peas, beans, sweet potatoes, peanuts, cotton, pears, grapes, hay and soybeans. Mistletoe and holly branches were clipped and shipped to New York at Christmas time during the depression. By 1850 the family was a part of the navel stores industry and most of the long-leaf pines were cut to tap the raw pine sap (soft turpentine) and distributed to distilleries nearby. At the end of the Dogwood Trail there is an area of raised land that is the remains of the tar kiln used to extract turpentine. 


The Silky Camelia or Stewartia (Stewartia malacodendron) is a rarely seen native plant which occurs only in ten states in the southeast, including North Carolina. The plant is listed as ‘imperiled’ in the State of Georgia with only nine confirmed sightings since 2000[4]. The showy saucer-shaped flowers are about 3 inches in diameter. The flower’s five white petals have crimped edges and are occasionally streaked with purple. In the center of the flower are 50 to 100 purple stamens with blue anthers. The genus is in honor of John Stuart (1713 -1792), a 16th century Scottish botanist. Due to a transcription error the original name was spelled Stewartia and in the 19th century was spelled Stuartia for a time but the original spelling is now accepted. The species name malacodendron means “soft tree” in Greek and refers to the silky hairs of the underside of the leaves. The young twigs of this shrub also have silky hairs. It is related to the tea family and other camelias and is a small under-story woodland species. The deciduous shrub or small tree is multi-stemmed and spreads horizontally from about 15 to 25 feet wide with a height reaching 10 to 18 feet. It prefers partial shade (only 2 to 6 hours of direct sunlight) to deep shade (no direct sunlight) in sandy acidic to neutral soil with high organic matter and good drainage conditions. The smooth bark is burgundy or reddish-brown colored and exfoliates into strips. The leaves are dark green, elliptical shape (2 to 4 inches long) and alternate with silky hairs underneath. In the fall the leaves turn yellow. The flowers give way to oval-shaped green fruit about an inch in diameter in the fall. The woody capsule contains 1 to 4 seeds.

Top: Cinnamon-colored stem and tiny hairs on young stems and underneath/edge of leaves. Middle: Large white saucer-shaped blossoms with crimped edges of Silky Camelia, purplish to redish stamens in center of blossom. Middle: spreading habit of Silky Camelia shrub, Silky camelia blossoms and fruits formering on stems.

There is more to than the Silky Camelia to see along the trails of Ev-Henwood and other plants that we saw were lichens covering the ground, large ferns and many wildflowers. There were several small Sparkleberry (vaccinium arboretum) shrubs in full bloom along with skinks, snakes and turtles. The largest bald cypress tree (Taxodioum distichum) in the preserve (named Old Gus by Mr. Henry) with a 17.6 foot circumference and 5.5 diameter can be seen along the Beechwood Trail. This preserve is also listed on the NC Birding Trail and you may see some of North Carolina’s more colorful songbirds along the trails such as the Prothonotary Warbler, Swainson’s Warbler, Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak and Indigo Bunting. Other birds have been identified here such as the Bobwhite Quail, Barred Owls, Pileated Woodpeckers, Cooper’s Hawks, Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers. 

Old farm pond on the way to Beechnut Trail.

Top: Lichen growing on the forest floor, large fern Middle top: Sparkleberry (vaccinium arboretum) bush in full bloom, close-up of sparkle berry flowers, hoary skullcap (Scutellaria). Middle bottom: Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium), Bald Cypress (Taxodioum distichum) ‘Old Gus’ Bottom: Snake and skink on the trails.

For a rewarding experience during mid-May, I urge you to go for a hike at the Ev-Henwood Preserve and enjoy the beautiful Silky Camelia blossoms along with the other abundant natural features it offers. If you have the time and stay overnight then I would recommend the charming town of Southport. I hope your weekend will be drier than ours.

Plan your own adventure at the Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve 6150 Rock Creek Road, NE Leland, NC 28451 

Driving Directions: 

Ev-Henwood Nature Preserve is about 10 miles south of Wilmington, North Carolina. To reach the preserve from route U.S. 17, follow Old Town Creek Road to its intersection with Town Creek Road, turn right and go about three blocks to Rock Creek Road. The Preserve is at 6150 Rock Creek Road.


Trail map: https://uncw.edu/physicalplant/arboretum/ev-henwood/

Each trail takes about 2 hours and a 33-page manual is available for download on this website.



[2] https://durhammastergardeners.com/?s=Rhododendron

[3] https://coastallandtrust.org/lands/ev-henwood/


Shortlink: https://wp.me/p2nIr1-3lM

DIY: Building a Dry Stream

By Ann Barnes, EMGV

The Challenge: My home’s backyard slopes downward. A previous owner decided to create a more usable backyard by building a retaining wall to create a flatter space near the house. The upper part of the yard features a large built-in bench and a garden bed containing a row of rhododendrons. Further away from the house, the lower portion of the backyard is a wooded natural area, providing quite a bit of shade to the entire backyard. 

Over the years, I had noticed that the upper part of the backyard was often soggy during wet weather. During and after storms, water would puddle near the bench and in the rhododendron bed. The rhododendrons in the center of the bed where the most water pooled, declined, and some died. To try to combat the problem, I hired a contractor to install a French drain. While this was successful in keeping water from puddling around the bench, it did not solve the problem around the shrubs. Every heavy rain caused standing water for hours afterward and left the area muddy.

Standing water in the landscape bed at the edge of the retaining wall on a rainy day.
All Photo Credits: Ann Barnes

After losing the third of six rhododendrons, I knew I needed to make more changes to the drainage before trying to plant anything new. A dry stream seemed to be the ideal solution – it would add an interesting focal point to the landscape while directing water away from the shrubs and allowing it to percolate into the ground.

Planning: The new stream needed to channel and contain water away from the landscape bed. Before I could create a design, I needed to make careful observations of where standing water was a problem. Yes, that meant standing in the middle of the yard in the rain marking puddles with flags so that I could do the designing and digging in nicer weather.

Natural streams are irregular and winding, so I outlined a meandering stream path using some garden hoses. The stream is at its widest and deepest near the mid point of the landscape bed, as this is where standing water was most prevalent. The stream width ranges from 12″ to around 3′ After settling on a path for the dry stream, I used spray paint to mark the outline and removed my hoses.  

Since I had had utilities marked for a previous garden project, I knew there were no buried wires in the area. If you aren’t sure, call 811 before doing any digging in your yard.

The Hard Work: From each bank, the stream slopes to a depth of about 3”. I created deeper pools in some areas to encourage rainwater to drain away from the landscape bed instead of puddling at the bases of shrubs. I was careful to leave as many roots of the remaining rhododendrons intact as possible to avoid stressing the plants. Digging the stream in my spare time took a couple of weeks, but a determined team could have finished in a weekend. Once the soil was removed from the stream bed, I turned on a sprinkler to see if the stream was directing water away from the shrubs. Success!

I added a thin layer of gravel along the bottom of the stream as a base. Large rocks had once been the landscape bed’s border. I reused them, arranging them as naturally as possible in and along the stream bed along with a few more I unearthed while digging. Finally, a ton of smooth river rocks were delivered and moved into the dry stream. Using rocks similar to those found in the area will provide a more natural look, so I kept this in mind when purchasing stone for the stream.

Once the stream was complete, I added plants. Matching the existing rhododendrons would have been difficult, so I chose Pieris japonicum, Illicium parviflorum, and a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum) to replace the shrubs that had died. Shade tolerant perennials, including many hellebores and ferns, were planted and the garden was finished with a fresh layer of mulch.

The “Finished” Product: (no garden is ever finished, is it?)

The dry stream has been very effective at moving rainwater away from the shrubs and perennials and is one of our favorite views from the house.

Lessons learned: Some online tutorials for creating dry streams recommended lining the stream bed landscape fabric before adding gravel and rocks. I opted to skip this step, but wish that I hadn’t. Soil and debris accumulates in the stream, and has covered some of the river rock. A landscape fabric base would make cleanup and maintenance easier. Currently, it is difficult to know where the bottom of the stream is supposed to be and to be sure I’ve uncovered all buried river rocks. This stream is several years old now, and I am planning to lift the rocks and add landscape fabric under them.

After a hard rain

If you have a larger, sunnier area than my backyard, you may wish to consider building a rain garden instead: 

Rain gardens are shallow bowl shaped landscaped areas that allow rainwater and runoff to filter into the ground. A rain garden can hold water for up to two days and can help prevent erosion. Native plants and shrubs that are planted in the rain garden attract beneficial insects and wildlife. There are some do’s and don’ts for choosing a site for a rain garden, including: 

  • Do not place rain gardens uphill of homes, septic systems or wellheads  
  • Locate at least 10’ away and downslope of the house foundation, crawlspace or basement (if home is on a slab locate downslope of foundation).  
  • Locate 25’ away and downslope of a septic system drain field.  
  • Locate 10’ away and downslope of a well head. 
  • Avoid underground utility lines BEFORE you dig (Call 1-800-632-4949 or 811 in NC).
  • The best location for the garden will be in partial to full sun (at least 4 hrs of sunlight).


Rain Gardens:



Dry Streams:


French Drains:


Diabase Bedrock: The Foundation for Unique Native Wildflowers at Penny’s Bend

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

This article was first published in The Gardeners Buzz, a newsletter of the Extension Master Gardeners of Durham County in June, 2022.

On April 2, 2022 my husband and I joined the ‘Spring Botanizing at Penny’s Bend‘ tour organized by Duke Gardens Education Program for an easy hike at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve[1]. Duke University, Department of Biology professors Paul Manos and Alec Motten guided us and answered our questions. The botany at Penny’s Bend is unique because of the geology of the site. The restoration of the rare Piedmont Savanna at Penny’s Bend is ongoing by the North Carolina Botanical Garden at the Preserve[2].

Water flows downhill, along a path of least resistance, and that is one reason rivers meander. Penny’s Bend is a local example of a pronounced sharp curve in the course of the Eno River. The reason for this abrupt change and subsequent re-correction of the river course is that it passes around the hard, erosion-resistant igneous rock called diabase. The easterly flowing Eno River encountered the diabase promontory exposed at the surface and abruptly changed course – flowing south and then for a short distance, north – along a diabase sill outcrop forming a pinched horseshoe shape. 

From left to right: Photo of trail head map at the entrance Kiosk at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve, Durham North Carolina. Looking north from the top of diabase sill outcrop along Eno River. All Photos by Wendy Diaz, April 2022

A sill is the term for a geologic structure forming a sheet-like igneous body that is parallel to the bedding planes and solidified between the sedimentary rock layers of the host rock; whereas, a dyke is a sheet of igneous rock that cuts across bedding planes of the host rock. There isn’t a lot of exposed bedrock in Durham County but there are a few outcrops of the diabase rock, such as along the Eno River at Penny’s Bend and the old rock quarry walls of the bear enclosure at the Museum of Life and Science. I also noticed there are some transported diabase boulders (not outcrop) along the side of Brigg’s Avenue Community Garden.

Diabase bedrock wall near the bear enclosure (former quarry) at the Museum of Life and Science, Durham, North Carolina.

While the diabase rock may not be unusual, geologically speaking, the soil derived from it did stimulate the growth of a group of unique plants that flower in the spring and summer at Penny’s Bend. Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria)[3], the endangered Smooth purple coneflower (Echniacea laevigata), Prairie blue wild indigo (Baptisia aberrans) and Hoary puccoon (Lithospermum canescens) are some of the unique plants that require neutral to alkaline soil conditions. While it was too early in the season to see the blooms of most of these unique wildflowers, we did see large patches of Dutchman’s Breeches along the north side of the rock face and the east bank of the Eno River.

Photo of Dutchman’s Breeches (Dicentra cucullaria).

Some spring ephemeral flowers that we saw on our walk were Spring Beauty (Claytonia virginica), which have pink stripes on the petals to guide pollinators to the nectar, Rue Anemone (Anemonella thalictroides) and Sessile Bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia). A large colony of Painted Buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica) shrubs was also in bloom near the diabase cliff along the north end of the bend. There was also many Trout lily (Erythronium americanum ) seed pods and leaves along the hiking path. 

Yellow blossoms of the Painted Buckeye (Aesculus sylvatica).

A Brief Geologic History of North Carolina

In Durham County, we live among the rolling hills of one of three physiographic regions, known as the central Piedmont, which is located between the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west and the relatively flat Coastal Plain to the east. Each region can be divided into geologic belts or ‘terranes’ that have similar rock types and geologic histories[4]. Furthest west, the oldest Blue Ridge Belt is a mountainous region with rocks dating all the way back to 1.5 billion to 1 billion years. These rounded mountains were thought to have peaks as high as 20,000 feet before millions of years of erosion took their toll. The youngest belt is the Coastal Plain-a wedge of marine sedimentary rocks which thicken closer to the coast and formed from sediments eroded from the mountains to the west between 65 million to just a few million years ago[5]. The bedrock which underlies the Piedmont consists of several different rock types formed over several hundred million years of geological history. Piedmont bedrock age ranges from the metamorphic Inner Piedmont Belt of 500 to 750 million years old to the sedimentary rocks of the Late Triassic Basins formed between about 235 million and 200 million years old. Most of the southern half of Durham County is underlain by one of three Triassic Basins, named the Deep River Basin which extends from Granville to Union County. Younger still, are the diabase dykes and sills intruded into the Late Triassic sedimentary rocks during the Early Jurassic Age[6] around 200 million and 175 million years ago when the supercontinent Pangaea was breaking apart forming what would eventually become the Atlantic Ocean. (This is illustrated in the YouTube video by California Academy of the Sciences[7]). Yes, the Jurassic Period, known as the peak age of the dinosaurs. When the continental plates diverged, the earth’s crust thinned when it was stretched, then the crust over the mantle became less dense and the reduced weight promoted the uppermost mantle to partially melt producing basaltic magma which intruded into the Triassic sediments.

About 220 million years ago when the Deep River Basin (rift valley) began to form, the continental tectonic plates pulled apart, forming cracks in the earth’s crust, roughly perpendicular to the direction of the moving continents. This basin was bordered by faults. Over millions of years it gradually filled up with eroded sediments from the much higher Blue Ridge mountains and the Piedmont Plateau to the west of the basin. These sediments solidified and formed mudstones, siltstones and shale. Other cracks continued to widen until they filled with ocean water. The pulled apart edge of early North Carolina (minus the coastal plain which was deposited after the pulling apart of the continents that formed the supercontinent of Pangea) roughly fits with the coastline of Africa from Mauritania and Morocco. At this point in geologic history the North American continent was closer to the equator.

Rock Mineralogy

Diabase is a dark grey to black, medium-grained, mafic igneous rock composed of Iron and Magnesium-rich minerals such as pyroxene. The exposed rock of the diabase sill at Penny’s Bend weathered and formed a soil markedly different in chemistry and properties to the surrounding acidic soil which was derived from the Triassic sediments. 

Close up of unweathered medium-textured diabase rock. Rust-colored surface of weathered diabase rock in the background.

When the minerals of the diabase rock breakdown they form clay minerals that form ‘sweet’ or basic soil with high pH and richer in iron and magnesium that what many other native plants can tolerate2. The soils are also rich in calcium from the plagioclase feldspar mineral[8]. Medium-grain size in igneous rock indicates the basaltic magma intruded and cooled underground near the earth’s surface (microscopic grains would indicate the molten rock cooled quickly on the earth’s surface). The diabase rock is more resistant to erosion because it is igneous rock that solidified from molten rock and not from cemented together grains of the surrounding less-resistant sedimentary rock. 

Fractured and weathered boulders from the Diabase sill outcrop along the east bank of the south flowing part of the Eno River.

The old diabase bedrock beneath Durham formed millions of years ago, and is now the foundation of our current natural world and determines the native plants we enjoy today on our spring and summer walks through the Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve. If you have not yet visited this site, I recommend a short walk along the Eno River, especially in the spring time. You will be rewarded when you see the unusual flora and fauna – and don’t forget to take a closer look at the bedrock that is exposed along the river bank which makes this area so special.

Black snake resting on dead tree stump along the Pyne trail at Penny’s Bend Nature Preserve. The new snake skin scales reminds me of the texture of unweathered surface of diabase igneous rock

DRIVING DIRECTIONS to Penny’s Bend from Durham (3710 Snow Hill Road, Durham, NC 27712)

Head north on Roxboro Street.

About 1.5 miles north of I-85, turn right onto Old Oxford Road.

Stay straight for 3.2 miles until you cross the Eno River.

Turn left onto Snow Hill Road and on the left is a gravel parking area on the left side of the road.


[1] https://www.enoriver.org/what-we-protect/parks/pennys-bend/

[2] A River Runs Around It: Restoring the Rare Flora of Penny’s Bend by Emily Oglesby, Conservation Gardener Magazine, Spring/Summer 2022, North Carolina Botanical Garden, The University of North Carolina.

[3] https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=DICU

[4]Generalized Geologic Map of North Carolina, N.C. Department of Environmental Quality https://deq.nc.gov/about/divisions/energy-mineral-land-resources/north-carolina-geological-survey/ncgs-publications

[5] Crossroads of the Natural World. Exploring North Carolina with Tom Earnhardt. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, 2013, 314 pages.

[6] Geologic Map of the Southwest Durham 7.5 Minute Quadrangle, Durham and Orange Counties, North Carolina by Charles W. Hoffman and Patricia E. Gallagher, North Carolina Geological Survey Open File Report 2001-XX

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ADsjdu27WaM California Academy of the Sciences

[8] Exploring the Geology of the Carolinas, Kevin G. Stewart and Mary-Russell Roberson. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2007, 298 pages.

Learn With Us, April 2023

The Plant Sale is here! Due to the weather forecast, the sale will be part indoors and part outside under tents, so grab your raincoats and come on out!

Container Gardening: Planting and Design
Tue, April 18, 10am – 11am
Cocoa Cinnamon, 420 W Geer St, Durham, NC 27701

For city dwellers, growing plants outdoors often means gardening in containers. Whether you live in an apartment, condo, townhome or house, our Urban Container Gardening series will get you prepared to grow ornamental plants or edibles in containers at your city home. For this two-part talk, you can attend either one or both seminars, as they’ll cover complementary information.

For our second class, you’ll learn from Extension Master Gardeners Cathy Halloran and Jackie MacLeod about selecting the right plants for the right place, differences between types of plants, design tips to make your containers look great, and then get your hands dirty designing and planting in containers.

Join the Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers of Durham County to learn gardening tricks and tips at the Cocoa Cinnamon Container Gardeners.

REGISTRATION REQUIRED https://www.eventbrite.com/e/container-gardening-planting-and-design-418-tickets-513365117887

$5 fee

Parking is available along the street and in the Cooperative Extension Parking lot (721 Foster St). There is a limit of 15 people per class.

This class is part of the Bull City Gardener Learning Series and is open to everyone.

This class is made possible by an Inspire-Connect-Empower Grant from the Master Gardener Association of North Carolina.

Durham Garden Forum

Tue, April 18, 7:00pm – 8:30pm

Anne Spafford, Professor of Landscape Design at
NC State University
High performing landscapes refer to garden elements
that serve multiple functions. A rain garden, for
example, can also be a pollinator garden, and can be
composed in a way that brings humans joy. A privacy
screen can also support wildlife. In this engaging
presentation, Anne will share her top ten design,
implementation and management strategies for
achieving sustainable and attractive landscapes.

The Durham Garden Forum is an informal
group that meets once a month to enrich
our gardening knowledge and skill.
3rd Tuesdays, 7:00- 8:30 pm via Zoom link sent to
Memberships: $25 per year
Members have access to video library of presentations
CONTACT US: durhamgardenforum@gmail.com

Container Gardening: Planting and Design
Sun, April 23, 2pm – 3pm

Cocoa Cinnamon, 420 W Geer St, Durham, NC 27701)
For city dwellers, growing plants outdoors often means gardening in containers. Whether you live in an apartment, condo, townhome or house, our Urban Container Gardening series will get you prepared to grow ornamental plants or edibles in containers at your city home. For this two-part talk, you can attend either one or both seminars, as they’ll cover complementary information.

For our second class, you’ll learn from Extension Master Gardeners Cathy Halloran and Jackie MacLeod about selecting the right plants for the right place, differences between types of plants, design tips to make your containers look great, and then get your hands dirty designing and planting in containers.

Join the Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers of Durham County to learn gardening tricks and tips at the Cocoa Cinnamon Container Gardeners.

REGISTRATION REQUIRED https://www.eventbrite.com/e/container-gardening-planting-and-design-423-tickets-517763884717

$5 fee

Parking is available along the street and in the Cooperative Extension Parking lot (721 Foster St). There is a limit of 15 people per class.

This class is part of the Bull City Gardener Learning Series and is open to everyone.

This class is made possible by an Inspire-Connect-Empower Grant from the Master Gardener Association of North Carolina.

For more classes and events, see: Triangle Gardener

The Budding Orchardist: There is No Off-Season

The Third Installment in the Series “The Budding Orchardist”

By Jeff Kanters, Master GardenerSM Volunteer

“The only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing.” –Socrates

(Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

After the long, hot, and drought-ridden summer of 2022, mid-October and November ushered in cooler weather along with shortening days. With these seasonal changes, the orchard trees, having stopped their robust vegetative growth, began to harden off and dropped their leaves through December. During this time, sugars once built and maintained in the trees’ leaf canopies via photosynthesis were transported down to the roots to be stored over the cold months ahead.

Preparations began in November to ready the trees for cold dormant-season management. Fruit tree care during the fall and winter seasons is as vital as it is in the spring and summer. Our team undertook the following to ensure future successes in the orchard.

• Painting the Trunks of Young Fruit Trees Before Winter

Trunk of fruit trees painted with white latex paint which helps prevent unwanted damage and subsequent problems. (Image credit: Jeff Kanters)

In early November all fruit trees were painted with a 1:1 dilution (one part water, one part paint) of white water-based (latex) paint along their trunks from the ground up to the first scaffold limbs. Important Note: Do NOT use OIL-based paint, as OIL-based paint is TOXIC to the trees! We did this for one main reason, and we get many questions about this.

The white latex paint reflects the sun’s rays and discourages large temperature swings to the bark’s surface. An extreme rise in heat of bark along the south-facing lower trunk can cause expansion and cracking when the daytime and nighttime ambient or air temperatures are at or below freezing. The cracking and damage to the trunk from temperature extremes opens the tree up to diseases and insects.

• Winter Pruning of Young Fruit Trees

After painting the trees, we scheduled winter pruning. Research has shown that the most optimal time to winter prune trees in the piedmont of North Carolina is between late December and early March, with February being the optimum month. There are fewer insects and diseases present, and the trees are dormant.

Winter pruning allows better visualization of the branching structure and the identification of diseased or damaged limbs. Also, by this time all the trees’ excess food (i.e. carbohydrates) is now stored in the roots, so pruning during dormancy does not decrease the available food stores of the trees when spring arrives.

While some root stocks may have a dwarfing influence on the top above-ground growth of some trees such as apples, this is not true of other types of fruit trees like peaches and plums. If you want to keep your fruit tree at a reasonable size for managing and harvesting fruit most easily, annual winter pruning is essential.

Neglecting annual training and pruning of fruit trees results in poor shape development, less quality fruit, greater disease susceptibility, and shortened life span of the tree.

Key fruit tree pruning priorities to maintain health and productivity of the tree are

  1. Remove all dead, dying, and diseased limbs.
  2. Remove limbs that crossover which can rub together causing damage to limbs and harboring disease.
  3. Remove limbs that grow downward or straight up.
  4. Increase sunlight penetration into canopy.
  5. Increase air flow in canopy and reduce fungal disease.
  6. Increase fruit production.
  7. Develop strong 45-degree angles on limbs to support fruit load.
  8. Maintain tree size (5 to 10 feet is the ideal size for the home orchard in terms of accessibility).

Important Note: Structurally, pome fruits (apples and pears) are pruned as a central-leader, Christmas- tree-like shape; stone fruits (plums and peaches) are pruned as an open-vase, bowl-shaped, multiple trunk form.

Key Pruning Equipment For Small Fruit Trees

A line-up of some of the fruit grower’s most important tools. (Image credit: J. Kanters)
  1. Lysol® disinfectant spray – Critical to ensure that the pruning tools are kept disinfected between pruning cuts to avoid the spread of disease. You can also spray tools with a 70-90% concentration of rubbing alcohol or 10:1 diluted bleach. The rule we apply is that if a tree appears healthy, then spray tool once before starting to prune and then spray again after completing the pruning of the entire tree. If, on the other hand, you have a tree with damage and potential disease on a particular branch you select to prune out, sterilize the pruning tool before and immediately after the pruning cut to avoid spreading disease to other healthy branches or limbs on the same tree you plan to prune next.
  2. Handheld bypass pruning shears – for pruning small branches up to ½ inch in diameter. Attempts to cut larger branches with pruning shears often results in torn, jagged pruning cuts and may damage the shears.1 (See note below for more information on bypass vs. anvil-action tools).
  3. Compact pruning tool blade sharpener – Very handy in keeping the blades of shears and loppers sharpened for clean prune cuts.
  4. Bypass pruning lopper – for pruning larger branches between ½ inch up to 1 ¾ inches in diameter.
  5. Pruning saw – for pruning large branches and limbs greater than 1¾ inches in diameter. Pruning saws are unique in that the blade teeth are oriented in alternating fashion forward and backward along the saw blade, thus allowing you to cut both on the forward push and the backward pull of the saw. Many shapes and sizes are available, from compact folding saws to straight fixed blades.

• Dormant Spraying of Young Fruit Trees

As soon as possible after the trees are winter pruned, we dormant spray the entire tree with horticultural oil and fungicide. This treatment focus is preventative spraying before symptoms are observed. After pruning, the tree structure is smaller and less spray is needed to cover the tree. Also, the spray application covers pruning wounds adding further protection from diseases.

The horticultural oil typically kills overwintering aphids, spider mites, scale, and eggs as they are hatching and before populations take off in warmer weather. The fungicide kills overwintering fungal spores to suppress development of rusts, fire blight, and peach leaf curl diseases. We opted to use Neem horticultural oil as the base oil.

We are testing the use of a liquid copper-based fungicide that can be mixed with the Neem oil and applied at the same time to the trees. We follow the manufacturer label directions on mixing and dilution in the spray pump spray tank. We wear rubber gloves, face masks, and safety goggles when spraying the trees, along with long sleeve shirts and pants.

Important Note: Keep sprayers dedicated to the sprays applied. Do NOT use one sprayer for different types of spraying. For instance, commercial growers have a specific sprayer for herbicide control and another sprayer for disease and insect control. We label our sprayers with waterproof markers designating their specific use. Be careful not to use more spray solution than needed.

The timing of spraying is the tricky part. By late February temperatures are starting to moderate more in the Piedmont. To maximize the effectiveness of the spraying, ambient air temperatures should be above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Second, rainfall is not good within a 24 to 48-hour period after spraying as the effectiveness of spraying is considerably lessoned. As you can imagine, this task is easier said than done, given the fluctuating late-winter to early-spring temperatures and sporadic rains. We keep a close eye on both temperature and precipitation forecasts to optimize the effectiveness of the winter spray program. We strive to spray before too much bud swelling and break on the trees.

Important Note: To protect our beneficial insects, we strive to conduct dormant spraying before blooming and pollinators are visiting. Any subsequent spraying during the growing season is timed after blooming and when pollinators are not active. More on growing season spraying pros and cons the next installment.

The saga continues as the young trees awaken from dormancy and their growth resumes in March through the summer months. Join me looking ahead as we face summer disease and insect pest challenges on the orchard trees. Stay tuned.



1–A few notes on bypass vs. anvil pruning shears and loppers. We strongly encourage the use of bypass shears and loppers rather than anvil types. The bypass types are essentially two blades that make a clean cut. The anvil shears and loppers crush the branch stem and cause more jagged, less clean cut that may open the tree up for disease.

Bypass pruners (left) work much like scissors and make cleaner cuts while anvil pruners (right) tend to crush plant material. (Image credit: Barbara H. Smith, HGIC Clemson Extension)

Resources and Additional Information

Fruit Trees General:

Fruit Tree Pruning Basics:

Winter/Early Fruit Tree Spraying:

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