Up and downs in winter weather tough on plants, local forester says
Saturday, January 28, 2012 - 5:35 pm

By PAUL HETZLER

“Scour with sub-zero arctic wind, then rinse with copious amounts of rain water. Repeat as desired.” If there was a product-care tag on our region, that’s definitely what it would say right now.

Recent weather patterns have brought hardships to people, and also to plants. We humans are a creative lot, though, able to overcome adversity. Has your car become a permanent fixture because the driveway flooded then froze solid overnight? Obviously you’ll either rent driveway ice-time for hockey practice, using the car as one goal, or call AAA for free towing and then step out for coffee for several hours. Problem solved!

Plants, unfortunately, aren’t quite as adaptable when it comes to drastic temperature changes. A tree or shrub that can normally survive to -30F can be killed or damaged at -10 or even zero if the mercury (or whatever that red stuff is) drops rapidly. Why is that?

People who own a seasonal camp drain the water lines in autumn, and maybe splash antifreeze into the sink traps to prevent freeze damage. Then they close up, lock up, batten down the hatches. Similarly, plants also winterize in the fall. They “drain” water from their cells, concentrating the sugar solution (antifreeze) within their cell walls. They batten down their armor-like bud scales to protect next year’s buds.

If it gets up into the 40s or 50s in January, no one (that I know of) runs to open camp and fill the water lines. They know it’s going to freeze again. However, plants begin to “open camp” after a few warm days. The cells take on more water, the buds swell and the bud scale “armor” loosens a bit. With fair warning, plants can winterize again, but when Mother Nature has a major mood swing, plant tissue freezes, bursting water-filled cells and causing some extent of damage.

While there’s nothing one can do to help your trees and landscape plants at this time, be aware that you may see winter injury next season. Dead portions can be pruned off, and in the event a specimen appears dead, give it some time before you dig it out; some plants may re-grow from the roots.

Please feel free to call Cooperative Extension at 379-9192 with questions, either now or in the spring—which hopefully will arrive in a more appropriate month and stop trying to show up every ten days.

-Paul Hetzler is a forester and a horticulture and natural resources educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.