damaged tree in winter ice

If you’ve ever been stuck outside in the cold during the winter months, you’ve gotten a taste of what it’s like to be a tree during wintertime! While trees are hardier than humans, the cold can still affect even the most robust trees and shrubs on your property. Snow and ice are especially tough on trees that aren’t native to the area and can’t stand up to winter weather.

Want to practice good tree care? Learn the warning signs of winter tree damage, as well as some tips for “tree-age” to minimize the threats posed by existing and future damage

Root Damage

The roots are both the mouth and the heart of a tree, drawing nutrients from the soil while also connecting the tree to its life force: the earth. Root damage is always a cause for concern, and it’s especially important to look for when you’re examining your property for any winter tree damage. Roots do not acclimate well to below-freezing temperatures and can be seriously damaged or killed if soil temperatures drop below 15°F.

How to protect against root damage

To keep your tree’s roots safe during the winter, especially the roots of shallow-rooted small trees, cover and insulate the soil using mulch and leaf litter. Soil temperatures rarely end up below freezing unless there is a heavy snowfall that does not melt for many days or weeks, so it is not likely that this form of winter damage will kill your tree. However, trees can experience stunted growth or become wilted due to frozen roots, so it’s best to prevent the problem as much as you can. You can also prevent root damage by limiting salt use around your trees. Damage from salt can be deadly to certain kinds of trees, so talk about alternative ice melting solutions with a certified arborist.

Frost Cracks

Frost cracks are easy to spot: visible vertical cracks in your tree’s trunk or limbs. Frost cracks occur during rapid freezing and thawing that takes place during extreme temperature fluctuations. They typically appear right after a major temperature change, although they can grow and warp over time. Once a tree has existing frost cracks, even if they appear to heal during warm seasons, they may reappear annually and can worsen over time.

How to protect against frost cracks

If you’re planting new trees, talk with tree service professionals about the best options for placement and species to ensure you aren’t inadvertently exposing your trees to the risk of frost cracks. If you have a tree on your property with extensive frost cracks, have the professionals examine it to assess if tree removal might be necessary.

Broken Limbs

During snow and ice storms, your trees are at risk because their limbs become brittle and snap over time as wind and snow pile on the weight… and the tension. Most trees can lose branches and continue healthy growth. In fact, most species of trees shed branches naturally over time. However, if you see a large number of broken branches surrounding your tree after each storm or the limbs falling from your tree seem to be especially large, call tree service professionals ASAP to make sure the tree is healthy. Removing an unhealthy tree that sheds large branches might be necessary to keep you and your property safe during the next big storm.

How to protect against broken limbs

While snow, bitter winter winds, and ice storms can’t be stopped, you can mitigate the effects they have on your trees by planning ahead. Pruning isn’t just necessary if you’re taking care of shrubs and plants; it’s also crucial for the health of your trees. You can prevent winter tree damage caused by storms by scheduling regular tree pruning during the late summer and early fall. This will remove the weak layers of branches likely to blow down during a storm as well as help keep large fallen limbs off your property.


During late winter and early spring, watch out for brown “dead” looking spots that appear on conifer trees, either all over the tree or above the snow line. This is called “winterburn” or “desiccation,” and it indicates the tree isn’t getting enough water. When temperatures are freezing, trees cannot extract the nutrients they need from the ground because the necessary water is frozen.

How to protect against winterburn

Applying a chemical called an “anti-transpirant” or “antidessicant” can help minimize winter tree damage caused by desiccation. Talk to certified arborists about using this chemical at least twice per season, usually once in December and once in February.


If you take good care of your trees, the word “blight” probably throws you into a panic. Sunscald, one form of winter tree damage, mimics blight so closely that it sometimes even fools biologists. The key way you can tell the difference is that sunscald comes on suddenly, whereas blight is a progressive degeneration of tree health.

You can tell if your tree has sunscald if new tree growth that is frozen turns flaccid, begins to appear water-soaked, then withers, leaving behind nasty elongated marks resembling cankers. This happens because of temperature differences between the side of the tree exposed to the sun and the side of the tree hidden from the warmth. The confusing signals sent by the warm and cold temperatures affect how the tree receives nutrients and can trigger de-acclimation of the tree trunk’s tissue. Thin-barked trees such as beech, willow, maple, and linden are especially vulnerable to sunscald.

How to protect against sunscald

If you get the chance to choose where and how your trees are planted, consult with professionals to figure out the best strategy for tree placement and the correct trees to grow based on the climate in your area. This is the best possible way to prevent this kind of winter tree damage. If you’re trying to protect trees you already have from sunscald, there are two main ways to keep them safe from sunscald:

  • Block or reflect sunlight
  • Avoid over-pruning

Marks of Animal Activity

When snow blankets the ground, animals lose access to plants they eat to survive. This leads many of them to seek food elsewhere — and sometimes, they end up nibbling on your trees. Watch out for marks of “girdling,” a circular gnawing shape in your trees made by hungry rodents and rabbits who feed on the bark. While this is unlikely to cause tree death in mature trees, young trees can suffer serious winter tree damage and even death from being nibbled away.

How to protect against animal activity

You can help your trees from being eaten away by taking them “off the menu.” Wrap trunks and low branches of young trees in hardware cloth or screen wire from below the base to above the predicted snow line. This way, animals won’t be able to reach the tasty, tender bark of the young tree. Further reduce potential mouse damage by keeping a 1 to 2-foot radius from the trunk free of grass, weeds, or other plants.

Turn to Your Local Certified Arborists

When you need tree pruning or tree removal in and around Virginia Beach, call on Tarzan Tree Service! Our crew members are professional, courteous, and efficient. From the time we write your estimate until the last twig is removed from your property, we hold ourselves to quality standards above the competition. Get in touch with us today!

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To whom may read this. Please inform the crew that serviced my property today at 4183***** in Virginia Beach that they did an incredible job. The price was far lower than all their competitors and they were beyond professional, Rob really took the time to explain what was being done and why, while the climber fellow did everything we asked from the ground. This company models good business.

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