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Waterlogged Plants

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

Central Illinois continues to receive excessive spring rains, which have resulted in waterlogged soils and flooding. Rhonda Ferree, University of Illinois Extension horticulture educator, says "It is important to understand what is happening to plants growing in these conditions and what to expect later." Rhonda describes this as "a wait-and-see situation." Many herbaceous plants are experiencing injury symptoms now. Visible injury symptoms on trees and shrubs may not occur for a year or more.

Injury symptoms, which vary according to several factors, include slower shoot and root growth, leaf yellowing, leaf twisting, leaf drop, root death, increased susceptibility to attack by insects and disease, absence of fruiting, and death.

The main reason injury occurs is related to oxygen availability in the soil. In flooded or waterlogged soils, roots are robbed of oxygen. When roots can't "breath" they can't provide needed nutrients to upper plant parts.

Although survival is directly related to a species tolerance of waterlogged soils other factors are important including the soil type; the time, duration, and depth of the water; the state of the floodwater; and the age and size of woody plants. Plants that are native to wetter habitats typically do better in wet situations.

Tolerant species such as bald cypress, littleleaf, linden, redtwig dogwood, mulberry, silver maple, and willow can live on sites in which the soil is saturated for indefinite periods during the growing season.

Moderately tolerant species such as green ash, hawthorns, honeylocust, pin oak, red maple, river birch, sweetgum, and sycamore can stand saturated soil for a few weeks to several months during the growing season, but die if waterlogging persists or reoccurs for several consecutive years.

Weakly tolerant species such as American holly, balsam fir, black walnut, bur oak, catalpa, hackberry, Douglas fir, eastern cottonwood, and red oak can stand relatively short periods of soil saturation - a few days to a few weeks - during the growing season but die if waterlogging persists for longer periods.

Intolerant species such as American beech, black locust, crabapples, eastern hemlock, flowering dogwood, paper birch, pines, redbud, spruces, sugar maple, tuliptree, white oak, and yews die if subjected to short periods of 1 or 2 weeks of soil saturation during the growing season.

Unfortunately, little can be done to prevent damage to plants growing in waterlogged soils. If a woody plant shows injury symptoms, such as leaf drop, do not immediately replace it. Some plants will show initial injury symptoms and then recover. Many woody and herbaceous plants, including turf areas will not recover. Be patient. Whether your plants are simply waterlogged or actually growing in flood areas, it will take a while to see the full extent of plant damage.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.