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Cold Damage. Now What?

In a few months when we are surrounded by the warmth and colors of spring, it will be easy to forget the record setting cold period that we experienced during the first week of January.  That time period delivered an extremely long freeze for the Southeast and will have an impact on plants and plant availability throughout spring.  We will also see damage to plants in our existing landscapes.  Cold damage generally occurs in three stages.

  1. Desiccation of foliage
  2. Splitting of stems
  3. Root damage

Some damage is already noticeable in the form of desiccation (extreme dryness) of foliage.  Desiccated foliage can look grey, brown or even black and is often shriveled.  This damage is generally located on the outer edges of evergreen plants.  A light shearing at the very end of winter or early spring will remove the affected foliage.  Desiccation will be the most common form of cold damage and will also have the least long lasting effects on our established landscape plants.

Some of the smallest of stems could already show splitting, but it may take several weeks for larger stems to display damage.  Splitting occurs when the outer bark and vascular tissue peels away from the wood of the stems and branches of plants.  This damage is best removed by hand pruning in late winter or early spring.  Splitting will be found less commonly than desiccation, and will provide a moderate amount of damage to our landscapes.  It is important to note that many of our plants have rough or ribbed bark that could be mistaken for splitting damage.  Always try to scrape away a little bark with your fingernail before assuming you have damage.  If the stem is green underneath your scrape, your plants are more than likely healthy.

Root damage will be the last form of cold damage to show, and will be the most harmful to the long term health of the plant.  While we had a record freeze, I DO NOT believe that we will see widespread root damage in our gardens.  Plants that are more likely have damaged roots are those that are borderline cold hardy in our area or plants that were under pest or disease stress.  Root damage may not show up in our landscapes until mid-spring or in some cases even late spring.  Plants can display anything from stem die-back to plant death.  Pruning, using the plant rejuvenation method, can be beneficial to some plants that are not damaged beyond repair.

Plants like Gardenia, Camellia, Loropetalum, Tea Olive, Chindo Viburnum and Fatsia could show more damage than others.  Those in exposed areas are more susceptible than those that are sheltered.  Flower buds on some of our spring and early summer blooming plants could have also been damaged or killed.  If you have any questions about any of your plants, feel free to bring in a sample and some pictures.  We will be glad to help.