The Q&A Archives: Michelia Alba Tree

Question: I bought two Michelia Alba trees from LA last November. I was told they are supposed to grow outdoors. But in Phoenix, it has been too cold in the past couple of months. The leaves became brown and fell off. About a month ago, I moved them inside the house in a spot full of sunshine. Now, all original leaves fell off, instead, lots of new leaves came out. But the new leaves are thin and delicate. Some of them are starting to fall off too. I have been watering them twice a week and fertilizing them with Miracle Growth's Azelea food once a week. Could you give me some instructions on how to have them to grow more stong and heathy leaves!

Answer: Michelia champaca 'Alba' doesn't appear on the lists of recommended species for the Phoenix low desert. I haven't noticed it available in local nurseries, which is perhaps why you had to bring it in from elsewhere. My reference shows that it is cold-hardy in zones 10 and 11. Phoenix is in zone 9, and we've had some extra cold snaps this winter, so a species that is not tolerant will likely suffer frost damage (leaves will turn brown and crispy and then drop off). When plants are moved from one growing condition to another (for example, outdoors to indoors), they often suffer "shock" with leaves yellowing and dropping, or other signs of stunted growth. Also, winter is typically a dormant period for many plants, so growth will slow or cease. So, the symptoms your trees are showing are not unusual. When you water, be sure the entire rootball is thoroughly moistened from top to bottom (use a soil probe), then wait to water again until the top inch or two of soil is dry. As daylight lengthens, growth may pick up. When you return the trees outdoors, harden them off gradually to reduce shock. Finally, check to see if the rootball is becoming entangled, growing out of the drainage holes, etc. As spring approaches, it may be time to pot up into fresh soil and the next size container. Good luck!

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