Winter plant damage

Sub-zero winter blasts damage plants

By: Sandy Feather ©2014 Penn State Extension

I continue to receive many questions about the viability of plants that suffered severe damage from winter’s subzero blasts. Boxwood, English ivy, pachysandra, rhododendrons, a variety of needled evergreens, hydrangeas, roses, and subshrubs such as butterfly bush all took a hit.

Severe winter weather causes plant damage in a number of ways – freeze damage, winter sun and wind, deicing salts, and hungry animals. The condition of plants going into winter is an important factor; those that were well hydrated and healthy most likely fared better than those stressed by drought, and/or insect and disease damage. Another consideration is the winter hardiness of affected plants.

Plants rated hardy to USDA Zone 6 and even 7 have been creeping into our plant palettes, and the polar vortex was not at all to their liking.

When Michael Dirr spoke in Pittsburgh in April, he mentioned that crape myrtles in Georgia were killed outright as the cold weather pushed deep into the southeastern United States.

Weeping Beech covered with ice
Weeping Beech covered with ice

The subzero temperatures we experienced over the winter can damage plants generally hardy in our climate. That may mean dead flower buds, vegetative buds, twigs, branches or even entire plants. Some may be slow to leaf out, while others may not bloom or may only bloom low on the plant where the flower buds were protected by snow cover. Some of the deciduous plants showing damage from winter injury include flowering cherry, hydrangea, Japanese maple, redbud and rose.

Winter burn on broad-leaved and needled evergreens happens when sunny or windy winter weather causes plants to lose moisture from their leaves through transpiration.

Arborvitae bent over by heavy snow
Arborvitae bent down by heavy snow

Dehydration occurs, since they cannot take up moisture from frozen soil to replace what they are losing. That results in the brown foliage we see in late winter and early spring. The severity of the damage can range from simple browning of leaves and needles that will be masked by new growth to the death of the plant. If buds and twigs are still green, they should push out new growth and the affected plant will eventually recover. Some of the evergreens showing damage include arborvitae, boxwood, English ivy, holly, juniper, Oregon grapeholly, mountain laurel, pachysandra, rhododendron, Southern magnolia, white pine, and yew.

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Deicing salts cause damage by accumulating in the soil or by being splashed or drifting onto leaves, needles and twigs. Salt in the soil dehydrates the roots, while salt spray on foliage draws moisture out of leaves and needles, resulting in dehydration damage similar to winter burn. Salt damage is more likely to occur on one side of a plant – the one facing a road – while winter burn may be more uniform on the plant. The abundant rain we have been having should help flush much of the salt from the soil, but additional irrigation may be necessary if new growth continues to show marginal scorching.

Salty slush and snow plowed into a shrub bed
Salty slush and snow plowed into a shrub bed

Last, but far from least, animals such a voles and rabbits often strip bark from stems of shrubs and trees when other food sources are buried under snow and ice. If the damage impacts the plant’s vascular system, affected stems and even entire plants can die. Deer browsing was extremely severe in areas where their populations are high. While affected plants may not die, they may take a long time to regain their ornamental appeal.

VIDEO: Trimming off broken branches

Even though spring has arrived, we may not have seen the last of the damage from the polar vortex. Some plants that were damaged by subfreezing temperatures may leaf out and seem to be fine until they are stressed by hot, dry summer weather. Then you may notice branch dieback, or the plant may die back to the snow line. Plants that have been slow to leaf out should be given a little TLC through the growing season. Do not be in a hurry to fertilize injured plants, because they may not be able to support the extra-succulent new growth that results. Make sure to provide supplemental water to them when we get into hot, dry summer weather.

Pear tree broken in half by a heavy snow load
Pear tree broken in half by a heavy snow load

I continue to counsel patience when it comes to removing winter-damaged plants. I thought one of my expensive tree peonies succumbed to the polar vortex, as it looked completely dead while the other tree peony leafed out normally and is now in full bloom. I was planning to dig it out when I noticed that it is finally breaking new growth. Wait until you see new growth from the base of plants, such as English ivy and pachysandra, to start trimming out the winter damage.


Freeze Damage

Staking tall evergreen trees