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Dealing with Winter Damage of Trees and Shrubs

Banner image above by John E. Woodmansee

We just got a good dose of winter weather in northern Indiana, and we have a long way to go yet. When spring does break, what effects will the winter weather have had on our trees and shrubs? B. Rosie Lerner, Purdue Extension consumer horticulture specialist (recently retired), offered her opinions.

“Although our plants are fully dormant at this time, the plant tissue is still subject to losing too much water – a condition called desiccation,” she said. “When the ground is frozen solid and freezing temperatures are accompanied by high winds, the plants continue to lose moisture without being able to replenish the supply.” Synonymous terms for desiccation that may be more understandable are winter dehydration or winter burn.

“Evergreens, and, in particular, broadleaved evergreens such as rhododendron, mahonia and holly, are the most susceptible, because they have a greater surface area through which to lose water compared to deciduous plants (those that lose their leaves in winter),” she said.

A tip to remember for next year is to install a screening material like burlap to protect broad-leaved evergreens from winter wind and desiccation, especially if they are on the north or west sides of the house. And, if autumn rainfall is insufficient in 2022, water plants until the ground freezes.

“Evergreens that have suffered from winter desiccation typically have beige to brown leaf edges that are curled, or they may show red or purple discoloration,” Lerner said. “But even deciduous plants continue to lose water throughout the winter.” Lerner adds that severe desiccation will be obvious as dead twigs and buds. Some twigs will leaf out in spring only to die back later in summer when additional stress such as heat or drought applies additional pressure, she said.

In my personal observations of pines and spruces, winter damage due to desiccation usually shows up as brown needle tips, or in more severe cases entirely brown needles, which eventually fall off. This is particularly pronounced on the sides of trees that face a road where salt spray may be a factor. The condition can sometimes be confused with a needlecast disease the tree may be infected with, so closer inspection with a hand lens is needed. Local residents may bring small samples of affected branches or needles into the Purdue Extension office for inspection. In some cases, submission of a sample to Purdue’s Plant and Pest Diagnostic Laboratory may be warranted. A small fee must accompany sample submission to the Purdue lab.

When things do warm-up and plants break dormancy (begin to grow again), a late freeze can also damage plant material, especially newly expanding shoots, tender buds, or foliage.

Lindsey Purcell, Purdue urban forestry specialist, urged homeowners to follow three main tips when dealing with snow or ice damage: do not shake limbs to try to remove snow or ice, hire a professional, and safely remove broken limbs.

“If a limb breaks off from the weight of ice or snow and remains in the tree canopy, have it removed and the remaining stub properly pruned to the branch collar as soon as weather allows,” he said. “The tree will recover better when properly pruned.”

For undamaged limbs bending under the weight of ice or snow, Purcell urged homeowners not to prune right away as a means of correcting the situation. “Be patient,” he said. “It takes time for wood fibers in the limbs to return to its natural position.”

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