Sunburn on fig trees may sound like an odd phenomenon, but it's a real issue that can wreak havoc on the growth and fruit production of these beloved plants. It might be the reason why you’re suddenly seeing big copper to silver-colored patterns on your fig tree leaves. In this article, we'll delve into the world of fig tree sunburn, exploring how to identify it, its causes, symptoms, and consequences, along with tips to help you prevent this rookie mistake.
Sunburn is one of the 9 most common ways we can fail at having a successful fig season. Check out the other 8 ways in this detailed article, here:
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Identifying Sunburn on Fig Trees
Sunburn on fig trees can be a common issue that can lead to setbacks in growth and development. Even I get some form of sunburn on my fig trees every growing season. There’s no need to be ashamed, but we must be able to identify sunburn to address the problem and prevent it in the future.
Here's how you can recognize sunburn on your fig trees:
The appearance of sunburned leaves: Sunburned leaves often display various discolorations & patterns, such as darker colors, lighter spots, silverish patches, and brown areas. These color changes result from the leaves getting exposed to excessive sunlight, which damages their cells and affects their ability to photosynthesize.
Leaves falling off: When fig trees experience sunburn, the affected leaves will often fall off. This occurs because the tree rejects the damaged leaves, which are no longer able to photosynthesize effectively.
History of light exposure: If you've recently moved your fig trees from a low-light environment to a high-light environment, and you notice the signs mentioned above, it is likely that your fig trees are experiencing sunburn. Rapid changes in light exposure can cause stress to the trees, and they might not be able to adapt to the sudden increase in sunlight.
Causes of Sunburn on Fig Trees
Rapid transition from low to high light conditions: One of the most common causes of sunburn on fig trees is moving them too quickly from a low-light environment, such as indoors or under shade, to a high-light environment with direct sunlight. Fig trees, especially young ones, need time to acclimate to changes in light intensity.
Insufficient acclimatization: When fig trees are not given enough time to acclimate to increasing sunlight levels, their leaves may not develop the necessary protective mechanisms to handle direct sun exposure. This can make the leaves more susceptible to sunburn. Similar to humidity shock and transplant shock, a similar phenomenon can occur with drastic changes in sunlight.
Intense sunlight: During periods of intense sunlight, fig trees can be more vulnerable to sunburn. Prolonged exposure to direct sunlight can cause the leaves to overheat, damaging their cells and leading to the characteristic discolorations associated with sunburn. A cloudy or overcast day will not lead to the same vulnerability.
Lack of proper shading or protection: If fig trees are not provided with adequate shading or protection from direct sunlight, they may experience sunburn. This is particularly important for young trees that have not yet developed a strong tolerance to sunlight.
Consequences of Sunburn on Fig Trees
Loss of Photosynthesis
Sunburn damages the cells in the leaves, impairing their ability to photosynthesize. As a result, the tree's overall photosynthetic capacity is reduced, which can lead to slower growth and less vigorous development. This can be particularly detrimental to young trees, as they rely on their leaves for energy production and growth.
Delayed Growth and Fruit Production
Sunburn can cause leaves to fall off the tree, reducing its ability to generate energy and potentially stunting its growth. This can delay the establishment of young fig trees, making it more difficult for them to reach their full potential in terms of size and fruit production.
Lower Fruit Quality
Fig trees that experience sunburn may produce lower-quality fruit due to the stress caused by the damage to their leaves. The fruits may not develop the optimal size, taste, or texture expected from your particular fig variety.
Sunburned leaves can detract from the overall appearance of your fig trees, making them less visually appealing. While this may not directly affect the health of the tree, it can be a concern for gardeners who want to maintain an attractive landscape.
This is a sunburned fig leaf next to a dried Campaniere fig. Note the brown spots that could resemble fig rust and the burnt stem.
The recovery process largely depends on the damage's extent and the tree's overall health. In most cases, fig trees shed sunburned leaves and grow new, healthy foliage. This new growth will allow the tree to regain its photosynthetic capacity and continue to develop. If your tree was weak, to begin with, and can’t begin the recovery process, you may, unfortunately, lose your tree.
To support your fig tree's recovery, it's essential to provide it with proper care during this time:
Maintain consistent watering: Ensure the tree receives adequate water to prevent additional stress from water shortage. Keep the soil moist but not waterlogged, as this will help promote root growth and overall health. If your tree is losing leaves, be careful not to overwater. The soil may become too saturated leading to root rot.
Fertilize responsibly: Provide your tree with balanced, slow-release fertilizers to support its recovery. Avoid over-fertilizing, as this can cause further damage.
Don’t remove any leaves: Let your tree decide. I know we all want gorgeous fig trees, but fig leaves hit hard by sunburn can often still provide some amount of photosynthesis to your fig tree. This is critical for a speedy recovery.
Monitor progress: Keep a close eye on your tree's recovery, watching for new growth and overall improvement in its health. This will help you adjust your care plan as needed.
Experiencing sunburn damage on your fig tree's leaves can be disheartening, but the good news is that your tree still has the potential to recover and it likely will. Fig trees are resilient plants, and their ability to bounce back from sunburn damage offers a glimmer of hope to concerned gardeners.
Check out this article for many helpful tips on fig tree care:
Preventing Sunburn on Fig Trees
When moving your fig trees from a low-light environment to a high-light environment, do so gradually. Allow the trees to acclimate to increasing levels of sunlight over a period of time, rather than exposing them to direct sunlight suddenly. This will help the trees adjust to the change in light conditions and reduce the risk of sunburn.
If your fig tree was growing in shady conditions outdoors, move it to a new location that has 1-2 more hours of direct sunlight per day. After 2-3 days, move it again to a location with another 2 hours of direct sunlight per day eventually reaching the maximum sunlight hours per day at your location.
If your fig tree was growing indoors, repeat the same steps above, but start by placing your fig tree in a location that has no direct sunlight for 2-3 days.
Don’t have a shady location? You can use shade cloth, umbrellas, or other shading devices to block intense sunlight during peak hours. This will help prevent sunburn and allow the trees to develop a tolerance for sunlight gradually.
If you’re struggling with sunburn, I would highly recommend going over the detailed 15 steps to success checklist I’ve created for fig trees. You can find that checklist here:
Comparing & Identifying Fig Rust Vs. Sunburn
Identifying fig rust and sunburn on fig trees may seem confusing at first, but understanding the distinct characteristics of each issue can help you accurately diagnose the problem. Fig rust is a fungal infection that initially presents as small yellow spots on the upper surface of the leaves.
As the infection progresses, these spots grow larger, turn reddish-brown, and develop a slightly raised, blister-like appearance on the underside of the leaves. In contrast, sunburn on fig trees is caused by excessive exposure to sunlight and manifests as darker, lighter, and larger patterns, with leaves, often appearing burnt or discolored.
While both fig rust and sunburn can lead to premature leaf drop, the consequences and required treatments differ. Fig rust is more likely to occur in warm and moist environments, and it can spread rapidly from leaf to leaf or from tree to tree, especially in wet and humid conditions.
On the other hand, sunburn typically occurs when fig trees are exposed to direct sunlight too quickly, without proper acclimation. Prevention and treatment strategies for fig rust involve proper pruning, fungicides, and maintaining dry conditions while preventing sunburn requires a gradual transition to higher light conditions and providing adequate shading or protection for the trees.
Leaf Scorch on Fig Trees
A different challenge that fig trees may face is leaf scorch, which occurs when hot and sunny conditions combine with a lack of soil moisture. This issue can cause significant stress to your fig trees and cause similar consequences to sunburn
Leaf scorch manifests as browning or yellowing of the leaves, often starting at the edges and progressing towards the center. In severe cases, the affected leaves may become crispy and eventually fall off the tree. The primary cause of leaf scorch is water stress, which is exacerbated by high temperatures and strong sunlight. When fig trees are unable to take up enough water to meet their needs, the leaves begin to show signs of scorching.
To prevent and manage leaf scorch on fig trees, consider the following strategies:
Monitor soil moisture: Regularly check the soil moisture around your fig trees to ensure they have enough water to meet their needs, especially during hot and dry periods. Water the trees deeply and consistently to maintain even soil moisture, but avoid overwatering as this can lead to other issues.
Mulching: Apply a layer of organic mulch around the base of your fig trees to help conserve soil moisture and regulate soil temperature. This can also help reduce weed growth, which can compete with your fig trees for water and nutrients.
Partial shade: If your fig trees are exposed to intense sunlight for extended periods, consider providing some shade during the hottest part of the day. This can be achieved with shade cloth, lattice, or by strategically planting other trees or shrubs to cast dappled shade on your fig trees.