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.
  • A proper pruning cut preserves the branch collar and is not flush with the trunk. Image source:

    A proper pruning cut preserves the branch collar and is not flush with the trunk. Image source:

    When pruning broken branches, know where to cut. Cutting in the wrong place can lead to decay, failure in future storms, and tree death. Florida Extension has several excellent references on pruning trees:

  • 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.
  • Never have a tree topped! This practice, which removes all of the large branches of a tree (similar to shearing a hedge) is extremely damaging and weakens trees in the long run. If topping is your only option, you are better off having the tree removed and replacing it with a stronger species. Learn more about why you should not top from these Extension resources:
  • 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.

  • 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.
  • 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,

Learn More

Visit your local Cooperative Extension office to learn more about gardening and landscape care. Go to to find your county Extension center.

Contact your local Cooperative Extension office to get expert advice from an Extension Agent or Master Gardener Volunteer:

Visit the Pender Extension Lawn and Garden webpage to stay up to date with all the latest gardening news.