Dealing With Ice Damaged Trees

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Ice covered tree

The flexible wood of river birch bends readily under the weight of ice but rarely breaks.

Freezing rain continues to fall in southeastern North Carolina, building up on branches and limbs and causing trees to bend and twist. The weight of ice may also cause limbs to break or topple whole trees. How you deal with damaged trees after the ice melts will impact their health now and for years to come. The following tips will help you care for storm damaged trees:

  • Once the ice is melted, assess the damage. If more than half of a tree’s limbs are damaged, the tree is highly unlikely to recover and should be removed. If only small limbs and twigs are damaged, the tree will likely make a full recovery. The more large branches are broken, the less likely the tree is to successfully recover.
  • Don’t over prune – leave as many limbs as possible. Removing more limbs than necessary reduces the tree’s ability to feed itself through photosynthesis that takes place in the leaves. Trees may look uneven or out of balance immediately after pruning, but will fill in within a few seasons.
  • If the main leader (trunk) is broken, the tree should be removed. Some trees, such as pine and hickory, have main leaders that extend all the way to the top of the tree. When the trunk on these trees fails, they will not recover.
  • Ice damaged tree.

    If the main trunk or more than 50% of branches are broken, the tree should be removed. Photo credit: Bert Cregg, MSU.

    Anytime you have a tree removed, replace it with a stronger wooded species. Trees more resistant to wind and ice damage for our area include: crape myrtle, bald cypress, live oak, river birch, and southern magnolia. For more recommendations, see this June 2013 Pender Gardener post:

  • Some trees are weak wooded and more likely to be damaged in wind and ice. Weak wooded trees commonly planted in our area include: Leyland cypress, lacebark elm, Bradford pear, pines, laurel and water oaks, red and silver maples, and pecan. To minimize future damage, avoid planting these trees, especially near structures.
  • Most shrubs damaged by ice can be severely pruned if necessary. Wax myrtles are particularly prone to ice damage but can be cut back to within a few feet of ground level and will regrow, usually in one or two season. Most broadleaf evergreen shrubs (camellias, azaleas, ‘Chindo’ viburnum, hollies) and deciduous shrubs (spirea, butterfly bush, Knockout rose) can be treated this way, but conifers (thuja, juniper, cedars, arborvitae) will not. Keep in mind spring blooming shrubs cut back now will not bloom this year. Learn more from this 2013 Pender Gardener post:
  • Stay safe! Never cut limbs tangled in power lines – call the power company instead. Anytime removing a branch requires a ladder or a chainsaw, you should strongly consider hiring a tree care professional to do the job. Learn more about hiring a tree care professional from this NC Extension guide:
  • When pruning trees you wish to preserve, consider hiring a certified arborist. Pruning large trees and assessing tree health requires specialized skills and knowledge. If you are concerned about the health and strength of trees on your property contact a certified arborist to assess the situation. Certified arborists are highly qualified tree professionals who have passed the certified arborist exam offered through the International Society of Arboriculture. A list of certified arborists practicing in North Carolina can be found on their website,

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