Dealing With Ice and Snow Damage to Trees

7 Tips for Ice-proofing Your Next Forest Landscape

Icicles and frozen autumn leaf hanging at ..
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Brittle tree species that retain dead, persistent winter leaves normally take the brunt of heavy icing after a winter storm. Knowing and managing your brittle trees and you can make it through a normal ice storm.

Many of the elms, most true poplars (not yellow poplar), silver maples, birches, willows, and hackberry are tree species that simply can't handle the weight of the ice slurry coating their limbs, persistent leaves, and needles. They do well with the snows of the north but have problems in areas that have regular ice storms.

Cold climate conifers like fir, spruce and hemlock can handle moderate icing. Southern yellow pines usually take a beating during major icing events that occur on the edge of their natural range.

Brittle trees tend to be fast growers. Because of their desirable growth potential and the prospect of making quick shade, "weak" trees are sought out and planted by homeowners in late winter ice zones. Planting these trees will only exacerbate the problem of limb breakage during heavy icing.

Fast-growing trees often develop weak, V-shaped crotches that easily split apart under the added weight of ice. Because these trees usually take some damage from storms throughout the year, internal rot, decay and included bark (some of which you cannot readily see) lead to weakened trunks and limbs (some callery pears).

Multiple leader, upright evergreens, such as arborvitae and juniper, and multiple leader or clump trees, such as birch, are most subject to snow and ice damage. Smaller trees need to be wrapped and larger trees with wide-spreading leaders should be cabled in ice-prone areas.

Here are things you can do in the yard or landscape to prevent ice damage:

Plant Only Strong Trees in Your Landscape

Certain trees are popular year in and year out for a reason - they show well and live well. Prefer these trees but eliminate those I have mentioned that door poorly in ice-prone regions. 

Brittle Species Should Not Be Planted

These species will not do well on sites where heavy ice and snow is a problem. Brittle species include elm, willow, box-elder, hackberry, true poplar and silver maple.

Avoid Planting Species With Persistent Leaves

Species that hold their persistent leaves into late fall and early winter where early ice storms are common isn't a great idea. These trees are quickly damaged and removed where the ice storm is common.

Wrap Small Multi-Leader Trees

So you have a valuable, small specimen you want to preserve. If ice is predicted, secure the tree with strips of carpet, strong cloth or nylon stockings two-thirds of the way above the weak crotches. Always remove any wrapping during spring to avoid binding new growth and girdling limbs and trunk.

Begin an Annual Pruning Program When Trees Are Young

There is not much you can do with a weak crotch so use tip 4. Prune dead or weakened limbs and excessive branches from trunk and crowns. This reduces ice weight that can rapidly destroy the tree's form.

Hire a Professional Arborist

The expense is worth it for particularly valuable susceptible or wide-spreading large trees. An arborist can strengthen a tree by installing cabling or bracing on weak limbs and split crotches.

Favor "Conical Formed" Trees

Trees like conifers, sweetgum or yellow poplar will be robust additions to your landscape. Species with less branch surface area, such as black walnut, sweetgum, ginkgo, Kentucky coffeetree, white oak, and northern red oak are preferred.

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Nix, Steve. "Dealing With Ice and Snow Damage to Trees." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Nix, Steve. (2021, September 2). Dealing With Ice and Snow Damage to Trees. Retrieved from Nix, Steve. "Dealing With Ice and Snow Damage to Trees." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).