How to care for trees damaged by the ice storm

When in doubt, call in an expert to take a look, Texas A&M Forestry expert says.

By Alexandra HartFebruary 3, 2023 1:23 pm, ,

With temperatures on the rise, ice is finally melting and the post-storm cleanup begins.

Those with trees on their property may be in for quite the cleanup job. From broken branches to fully-uprooted adult oaks, the storm took a toll on many of the state’s trees. While ice storms are an inevitability in Texas, this one seemed to be particularly hard on plants.

Alison Baylis, Regional Urban Ecologist with the Texas A&M Forestry Service, spoke with the Texas Standard about why this storm was so destructive, and how to care for damaged trees. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: We always see downed limbs during these ice storms, but this one really seemed to wreak havoc on trees and especially more in the part of Texas that you cover at Texas A&M Forestry Service in Central Texas. Was this storm really worse or is it just that memories are short?

Allison Bayliss: Yeah. So in this storm, something unique that we saw was the accumulation of ice. So it did differ from the storm that we had back in 2021. Really, the weight of the ice on the trees is what was so problematic.

It was almost like the ambient air conditions were such that it just created layer upon layer upon layer of ice. And these trees just couldn’t stand all of that weight. I heard it described as equal to two car vehicles in weight.

Yeah, that’s exactly correct. The extra weight essentially caused some limbs or even whole trees to succumb to the pressure of that weight.

Well, I’m curious about whether there was anything about the health of the trees involved here. I mean, is it possible that, had these trees been more robust – had there not been a drought here – that perhaps they would have survived more? Or are there other factors involved in the survival of these trees? 

Yeah. So most of the factors will be due to the actual structure of the tree rather than negative effects from the drought. It is possible that there were leftover broken branches or things of that sort from the drought that could be more weak and could then have fallen. But I’ve even seen perfectly healthy-looking trees lose healthy limbs. So a lot of those limbs that I’m seeing come down are limbs that have what we call “structural defects” like included bark and makes them inherently more weak.

We’ve seen some people online call this the “oak apocalypse.” And I’m curious, are some species of trees more vulnerable to ice damage than others?

So in terms of just general ice damage, yes. Some trees, especially trees with thin bark, can be more prone to ice damage. However, what I’m seeing instead is just the overall weight. The accumulation of the weight itself is affecting lots of trees, all different species, not just oaks. Now, we do have a lot of oaks here in Central Texas, so that could be one reason why we tend to notice the damage more on oaks.

I see. Well, now, are there signs to look for to determine if a particular tree is a total loss or if it can be saved in some way?

Sure. Some things that you’ll want to look for is first, if there’s any major structural cracks or breakage along the main stem. That may be an indicator that the tree might not be structurally sound.

Now, when it comes to a tree that’s just lost a limb or two, you know, that tree can recover. Think about it a bit like you and I. If we break an arm, we can recover and move on from that. Other trees that have been, of course, completely uprooted, they aren’t the best candidates for keeping. I will say, though, having a qualified person – like a certified arborist – coming to check the tree if you’re not sure is a good step to take.

When should someone call in an expert to inspect damaged trees? I mean, there’s so many folks with limbs down or who lost a good part of the tree. When would you call in a specialist?

So I would call on a specialist if I had more than a few limbs missing on my tree or if my tree was leaning. You still can call on a specialist, even if it’s lost one or two limbs, to come back and clean up the cuts. I do want to caution folks, though, that the trees themselves now, they can be dangerous. So consider that before you take your own chainsaw to attempt to either clean up the tree or attempt to remove it in any way.

What steps should you take to care for a tree that’s been damaged to prevent further harm? I know some people sometimes dress the wounds of trees where you’ve cut off a branch. Do you need to do that sort of thing or what exactly?

So if you’re going back in to clean up the cuts, spraying oak trees specifically with pruning spray or paint can be used to help limit the spread of oak wilt, but that is only to help prevent the spread of oak wilt and does not need to be applied to all trees universally.

Any best tips for removing the debris from damaged trees?

Yeah. My first tip is to think of safety first. Be cautious because I still do see limbs hanging from the tree. Those can fall and be dangerous. I’ve seen some trees that are split but just haven’t fallen. If you think the job is beyond your skill, hire a certified arborist to come and clean up the tree because trees can be dangerous.

This can be really tricky too, because sometimes you don’t realize that an entire tree might be leaning on a particularly robust branch that has bent and is leaning on the ground. I mean, we noticed this at a neighbor’s yard just yesterday. And had we started to remove that branch a little bit higher up to where it joined the tree, that tree probably would have fallen on us. So, I mean, it really is good if you can sort of do this in small measures. And hopefully with someone who knows their way around removing these branches, who has a little bit of experience. Don’t try this if you’re a newbie, I guess you could say.

Absolutely. When in doubt, call a certified arborist to help you with your tree.

Let’s talk about preventative measures. Since ice storms are just part of winter weather here in Texas, anything you can do before a storm hits to strengthen its defenses?

For preventative measures, we need to be thinking long term. So some things that can be done is trees can be pruned to improve structure and that can help minimize the risk of weakly-attached limbs or limbs that are more prone to breakage. Pruning can also be used to remove dead, diseased, or dying branches, which of course can also be more susceptible to falling under this excessive weight.

And then some other things to think about, too, is taking into account the mature height of tree planting and making sure that we are not planting any trees larger than what we consider the small size in or around power lines. Any limbs or trees that have fallen on power lines – stay away from those. Do not attempt to touch the tree or remove those limbs.

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