Assessing Ice Damage to Trees

From the Lamar County Master Gardener Newsletter

The winter storm left trees looking like there’s no tomorrow. Major limbs have been broken or damaged, foliage has been shredded or stripped, or the bark has been torn or gouged. But what at first glance may look like mortal wounds are not necessarily fatal to a tree. Trees have an amazing ability to recover from storm damage.

The first step is to assess the damage. Before writing off a damaged tree as a “goner,” evaluate trees by asking the following questions:

  1. Other than the storm damage, is the tree basically healthy and vigorous? If the tree is basically healthy, is not creating a hazard, and did not suffer major structural damage, it will generally recover if first aid measures are applied immediately after the storm.

  2. Are major limbs broken? The larger a broken limb is, the harder it will be for the tree to recover from the damage. If a majority of the main branches are gone, the tree may have little chance of surviving.

  3. Has the leader (the main upward-trending branch on most trees) been lost? In species where a leader is important to upward growth or desirable to appearance, it may have to be a judgement call. The tree may live without its leader, but at best wold be a stunted or deformed version of the original.

  4. Is at least 50 percent of the tree’s crown (branches and leaves) still intact? This is a good rule of thumb on tree survivability. A tree with less than half of its branches remaining may not be able to produce enough foliage to nourish the tree through another season.

  5. How big are the wounds where branches have been broken or bark has been damaged? The larger the wound is in relation to the size of the limb, the less likely it is to heal, leaving the tree vulnerable to disease and pests. A two- to three-inch wound on a 12-inch diameter limb will seal over with new bark within a couple of years.

  6. Are there remaining branches that can form a new branch structure? The remaining limbs will grow more vigorously as the tree tries to replace its missing foliage. Look to see if branches are in place that can eventually fill out the tree’s appearance.

  7. Is the tree of a desirable species for its location? If the tree is in the wrong location (such as a potentially tall tree beneath a power line), or an undesirable species for the property (messy fruit, etc.), it may be best to remove it if it has serious damage.

The questions listed above are intended to help you make informed decisions about your trees. In general, the answer as to what to do about a particular tree will fall into one of the following three categories:

  1. It’s a “keeper.” If damage is relatively slight, prune any broken branches, repair torn bark or rough edges around wounds, and let the tree begin the process of wound repair.

  2. Wait and See. If a valuable tree appears to be a borderline case, resist the temptation to simply cut the tree down and be done with it. In such cases, it may be best to stand back for a while and think it over. Remember that time is on your side. After careful pruning of broken branches, give the tree some time to recover. A final decision can be made later. The majority of trees may be classified into this category.

  3. Say Goodbye. Some trees simply cannot be saved or are not worth saving. If the tree already has been weakened by disease, if the trunk is split, or more than 50 percent of the crown is gone, the tree has lost its survival edge. Remember, photosynthesis is the process by which plants grow. Photosynthesis requires sufficient leaves (or needles) to capture sunlight and feed the tree. Significant loss of limbs and leaf sites will drastically reduce the tree’s photosynthesis capacity an ultimately, its ability to recover and survive.

Some trees may have damage that’s too close to call, or may have hidden damage. To help with such questions, a tree professional may be needed to help you decide what to do about your trees. Don’t hire just anyone who slows up at your door following a storm. Ask around for references and experiences by friends and neighbors.

More information can be found by visiting the Texas Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture website at:

International Society of Arboriculture

Or, go to the Texas Chapter of the ISA at:

Texas Chapter ISA

The National Arbor Day Foundation has helpful hints on their website at:

National Arbor Day Foundation

Also, agencies such as the Texas Agricultural Extension Service and the Texas Forest Service can provide useful information. For more information about the Texas Forest Service, visit:

Texas Forest Service

Information originally provided by the Texas Forest Service, as printed in the Lamar County Master Gardener newsletter ‘Successful Gardening’.


This article appeared in the March 2001 on-line issue of Horticulture Update, edited by Dr. Douglas F. Welsh, and produced by Extension Horticulture, Texas Agricultural Extension Service, The Texas A&M University System, College Station, Texas.

Web page construction by Jill Stavenhagen.