Photinia ‘red tip’ dying or diseased? A practical guide to problems (diagnose and revive easily)


red tip photinia dying disease

Red tip photinia (Photinia x fraseri), particularly the cultivar ‘Red Robin’, are everywhere – simply put, because they look good and grow pretty well in most conditions! But walk up close. Take the example from my snap above.

They rarely look as good as they did in the nursery. Leaves are often spotted, or yellowing; the plants can look straggly or unkempt, or have lost too many leaves, or aren’t growing well…

So what’s wrong with it? What problems do YOU need to know about? Well…

Red tip photinia’s most significant diseases are entomosporium leaf spot and fire blight, which cause dieback and are potentially fatal to the shrub. It is readily eaten by pests, and is drought-intolerant. In alkaline or iron-deficient soils, the leaves can develop yellowing, known as chlorosis.

If you’re growing this tree, either individually (perhaps in a container) or if you’ve got a whole photinia hedge, you should read this simple guide – it’s easier to fend off these issues the earlier you identify them. I’ve learned to restore the beauty of this plant, and I’d love to let you in on a few tips so you’ll know how to revive it too.

I’ve been around photinia since I was starting out in the gardening world. Remember, while there’s a lot of my own experience in here, I always double-check the science checks out so you know that what you’re reading is reliable.

How fast do red tip photinia grow, and how big? Read here for a complete answer (plus how to make them grow faster).

My photinia has spots on its leaves

How to identify entomosporium leaf spot

Look out for red spots!

The most important (but not the only) disease affecting photinia is entomosporium leaf spot. This disease can and will kill the plant over a period of years, so it’s important to be able to distinguish it from many other harmless fungi that can cause spots here and there.

Entomosporium causes red leaf spots that:

  • are usually most prominent on the red, younger leaves (the spots are a deeper red)
  • are seen on both the upper and lower leaf surfaces
  • are most prominent in autumn and spring when it’s cool and wet

On older leaves (green ones) the spots are a light gray with a red border.

As the infection spreads, the spots join up into blotches.

The fungal spores spread from leaf to leaf. Heavily infected leaves eventually fall off. If they aren’t removed, spores continue to spread from the fallen leaves back onto the living tree, worsening the infection.

With repeated infection year-on-year, the photinia will lose more leaves, get progressively thinner-looking. This progresses to dieback of branches until the plant eventually dies.

How to treat entomosporium leaf spot

Prevention

Prevention ideally starts before you plant! Choose specimens at the nursery that don’t have any spots on the leaves.

Choose a spot that gets at least some good sun – in shadier areas, the leaves don’t dry out easily after rain (entomosporium loves the damp).

Avoid planting photinia in an area with poorly drained soil. This is often at the bottom of a slope. Feel the soil and look for standing puddles. As photinia does poorly in waterlogged soil, they’ll be predisposed to picking up other diseases, including entomosporium.

When watering red tips, water the roots, not the leaves. It’s important the leaves stay dry.

Furthermore, don’t plant photinia too closely together, so they crowd each other and prevent air circulation. I’d say 3 feet apart is good for hedging.

Pruning and reducing the leaf mass will help the leaves dry out. I recommend doing this in winter when the fungus is less active and you’re less likely to create an opportunity for infection.

Rake up and dispose of fallen leaves in the trash.

Treatment of established infection

As with most fungal leaf infections, you can control this one by regular removal of any leaves that have spots on them. You can pull them off by hand, but it’s better to prune them off and clean your pruners with rubbing alcohol or 70% alcoholic hand sanitizer between cuts.

If you dispose of (or burn) the spotted leaves carefully, you can prevent the infection from flourishing the following year.

Are fungicides helpful? Yes. In addition to cultural control, you could spray a fungicide containing chlorothalonil to really stay on top of, or prevent, this disease. Fung-onil’s the right kind of spray – check the price on Amazon (affiliate link).

It is entirely possible to maintain a healthy red tip, even if it has some entomosporium spots, using these methods.

Other leaf spot diseases of photinia

If you’ve got a few brown or black spots on your photinia leaves and it doesn’t meet the description of entomosporium above, it’s likely to be a different fungal infection. There are numerous species of fungi that can cause these, and they’re probably only distinguishable in the lab, by microscopy and culture.

These are largely harmless and more of a cosmetic concern. If it isn’t too widespread, I simply remove the affected leaves by hand as soon I see them and drop them in the trash (don’t drop them on the ground or more spores will spread from them).

What’s eating my photinia?

photinia leaves eaten
This photinia near me looks like it’s been eaten by slugs, rather than black vine weevil which mostly eats the edges of the leaves. There’s some non-specific fungal spotting, too

This is likely slug or caterpillar damage. It’s unlikely to affect the overall health and vigor of your photinia.

But if the appearance of these leaves troubles you, prune them off. Pruning red tips including Red Robin will encourage new growth (see the section on pruning below).

You should be aware of black vine weevil, which causes characteristic notches (like bite marks) along the edges of the leaves (rather than holes, or tracks).

In spring or summer these black beetles can be seen on the leaves if you head out at dusk with a torch. They’re important to identify, because their larvae (grub form) feeds on the roots in the cooler months, which will cause your photinia to wilt and decline.

Read more about black wine weevil here.

Black wine weevil can be easily treated with nematodes – here’s a short video showing how:

Best fungicides for red tip photinia

Fungicides to use for red tip photinia are those containing chlorothalonil, propiconazole or myclobutanil. It’s important to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, but typically these have to be sprayed onto the leaves every 7-14 days during the spring and early summer when new leaves emerge.

I recommend Bonide Fung-onil, which is available on Amazon – check the price here (affiliate link). It’s main ingredient is chlorothalonil. It’ll be effective in preventing entomosporium, but will also suppress the other fungal species which give red tips a bad look.

It’s especially worthwhile applying fungicides after cool, wet periods when fungi are ready to thrive.

Photinia leaves turning brown

Photinia leaves that turn brown may be showing signs of fire blight, an important bacterial infection that affects many trees and plants in the Rosaceae family. It’s endemic in North America and Europe.

This includes pear in particular, as well as apple, cherry, hawthorn and rowan/mountain ash. It’s impact on pear and apple crops is such that countries that don’t have fireblight, such as Australia, go to great lengths to keep it out.

The infection’s so-called because it’ll appear as though a single branch (or multiple individual branches) have been scorched, as if in a fire. If you inspect along this branch, you should be able to see a canker – a sunken or raised oozing wound – in the bark, between the brown leaves and the trunk.

If fireblight isn’t treated, the cankers can spread to the trunk and ‘girdle’ large portions of the tree. Once infection has spread this far, its unlikely your photinia will survive.

Fire blight (Erwinia amylovora) of pear
Fire blight in pear

If you suspect fire blight in your photinia by the presence of brown leaves confined to individual branches, you should consider consulting a local arborist, because if the infection is confirmed the local authorities might like to know about it.

Arborists may also use antibiotic treatments, such as streptomycin – but as there is a degree of resistance to these antibiotics (due to improper use) it’d be best to have the infection confirmed first.

The chief control method for fire blight is pruning out the affected portions of your photinia, but there’s a particular way to do this in shrubs and trees that avoids making the infection worse. Read more about that here.

Photinia losing leaves

It’s normal for photinia to lose some leaves. It is an evergreen plant, but as ever this is a slight misnomer. The leaves don’t stay on forever, but they last a lot longer than deciduous trees – 18 to 24 months usually. Each year – typically in summer or autumn – a few older leaves, which are on the inner parts of branches and typically low down, will turn brown or yellow and fall.

But if you notice outer leaves falling off your red tip, something’s wrong. What could it be?

Drought

Lack of water’s the big one. This tree is not particularly drought-tolerant. I often see this in red robins that are kept in containers, and not watered regularly during the summer – they don’t stand much of a chance!

So how much water do photinias need to keep them looking healthy?

As a general rule, you should water photinia once weekly in the summer and once monthly for the rest of the year, including the winter. 5-10 gallons for each inch of trunk diameter should be adequate.

watering soaker hose
A soaker hose running under a laurel hedge. Easily covered up with mulch.

Only skip a watering session if you have heavy rain, or if the ground is already wet, which you can check by digging your finger a couple of inches below the surface.

Have you got mulch over the roots of your red tip? If not, applying mulch is a must and an easy gardening win. A good organic mulch, such as bark chippings, will help in several ways:

  • it prevents water running off the surface, so that it soaks down into the roots instead
  • it insulates the roots against temperature changes and ground freeze
  • it decomposes gradually, acting like a slow-release fertilizer

Essentially, mulch mimics the natural surroundings of a forest floor. It should be 3-4 inches thick, but keep it from touching the trunk itself (where it can predispose to trunk-rot).

Transplant shock

This applies if you’ve planted your photinia in the past 3 years, but particularly so if it was in the past year.

When moved from container into the ground, or from one spot to another, plants have their roots unceremonially flung into a different environment and are expected to get on with it. But the change in moisture levels, soil composition and pH often means that for some time they fail to take up water normally.

This can result in a photinia’s leaves turning yellow or brown and falling off rather quickly – a condition known as transplant shock. Particularly, this is likely when they’re planted in summer by fair-weather gardeners and landscapers – really they’re much better off planted in autumn or winter when the ground is cool and moist and the roots have time to establish before the next growing season.

Photinia will usually get through this stressful time if they’re given enough water! Refer to the watering section above, make sure you’ve mulched the roots and you won’t go too far wrong.

Photinia leaves turning yellow

Photinia leaves can develop yellow discoloration, known as chlorosis, because of iron deficiency. Iron is needed to develop the green pigment chlorophyll. Photinia can struggle to absorb iron when soils are alkaline (pH >7).

If you’ve got yellow leaves, it’s worth trying to either:

  1. make the soil more acidic – typically by applying elemental sulfur OR
  2. add iron itself to the soil

OR do both – ‘Dr. Iron‘ is the obvious choice for gardeners, since it contains both – two birds with one stone! Check the price on Amazon here (affiliate link).

Do you know your soil’s pH? Every gardener should, since practically every plant has its pH preferences! Personally I use both the Rapitest Luster Leaf pH tester and the Rapitest manual kit. Check the prices on Amazon (affiliate links).

Rapitest Luster Leaf ph meter
I use the Rapitest meter for quick checks

Chlorosis usually affects younger leaves most. If it’s the older (lowermost or inner leaves) that look yellow, it could be nitrogen that’s lacking. Read the section on general fertilizers below to sort this issue.

How to keep photinia red

I’ve been asked this quite a few times!

You can keep red tip photinia red with regular pruning, which stimulates new growth. It’s the new growth that has the red coloration.

red tip photinia robin new growth color
It’s the new growth that brings the red color to this shrub

‘Growth follows the knife’ as the old gardening adage says. In common with other hedging plants such as laurel, the more you cut back your photinia, the more new growth will sprout and the thicker and more abundant the red foliage will grow back.

Pruning prevents your photinia from becoming thin and bare.

When should you prune red tip photinia?

As a general rule, red tip photinia should be pruned back in late autumn or in winter. You could consider pruning in early summer, so that you get a great flush of new red leaves over growing season – but then you’ll have a lot of very young foliage that hasn’t had the chance to harden off before winter and so will be more susceptible to fungal infection and frost damage.

In the pictures below, taken four weeks apart in December/January, the unpruned new foliage has made it through a deep frost.

Red tip robin photinia frost
Frosty photinia…
photinia frost
4 weeks later!

What’s the best fertilizer for red tip photinia?

Photinia don’t usually need a lot of fertilizing, but will usually look more vigorous with regular feeding and will be less susceptible to pests and diseases.

I go for a ‘complete’ fertilizer (one that contains the three main fertilizer component, which are nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, or N, P and K). You’re much better to buy a slow-release feed, so you won’t overdo it and end up harming your red tip.

I recommend Jobe’s Fertilizer Spikes which just make the process so simple. The ultimate slow-release fertilizer!

Red tip photinia not flowering, or no berries?

Red Tip Photinia flowering
A mature red tip photinia in bloom

Red tip photinia including ‘Red Robin’ are meant to produce small white flowers in the spring, leading to red berries that can last right through to winter (the cultivar ‘Red Robin’ is sometimes called ‘Christmas Berry’ for this reason).

The most common reason for a lack of flowers and berries is simply that the plant is too young, and hasn’t reached maturity yet. If the tree looks otherwise vigorous, it can be worth allowing it another season or two to flower and produce the fruit that follows.

But any issue affecting the overall health of the plant can limit flower and berry production as well. Trees need adequate sunlight for this process, so commonly it’s because the photinia’s growing in too much shade. But if it’s getting direct sunlight for part of the day, ensure it’s getting enough water, is well mulched and has access to slow-release fertilizer (see above!).


I hope you found this post helpful! Check out my home page and categories, where I’m certain you’ll find other useful posts that will help you get hands-on, with confidence, in your own garden.

Image attribution:

Hedwig Storch, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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