Thousands of trees have met with damage or destruction due to storm and wind damage in the past few weeks. While much of the tree debris, especially in residential areas, has been cleaned up, the question now turns to “Will this tree survive?”
The first thing to do is to remain calm. Just as in medical situations, doing the right things can make the difference between giving your trees a good chance of survival and losing them.
Before writing off a damaged tree as a goner, ask yourself the following questions:
∑ • 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.
• 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.
• Has the leader (the main upward-trending branch) been lost? In species where a leader is important to upward growth, this may have to be a judgment call. The tree may live without its leader but, at best, would be a stunted or deformed version of the original.
• Is at least 50 percent of the tree’s crown (branches) 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 the coming growing season.
• How big are the wounds where branches have been broken or bark has been damaged? The larger the wound, the less likely it is to heal.
• Are there remaining branches that can form a new branch structure?
These questions will help you make informed decisions about your trees. In general, the decision about a particular tree will fall into one of three categories:
1. Keep it. If damage is relatively slight, prune the broken branches, repair torn bard or rough edges around wounds, and let the tree begin the process of wound repair. A mature shade tree can usually survive the loss of one major limb. The broken branch should be pruned back to the trunk. In the following months, large wounds should be monitored closely for signs of decay. Young trees can sustain quite a bit of damage and recover quickly. If the leader is intact and the structure for future branching remains, remove the broken branches and let the tree close over the wounds and recover itself.
2. Wait and see. Resist the temptation to simply cut down the tree and be donw with it. Wait a while and think it over. Remember, time is on your side. Carefully prune broken branches. Then, give the tree some time to recover. Also, resist the temptation to prune too heavily. The tree will need all the foliage it can produce to survive the next growing season.
3. Replace it. Some trees simply can’t be saved or are not worth saving. If the tree has already been weakened by disease, the trunk is split, or more than 50 percent of the crown is gone, the tree has lost its survival edge.
Basic tree first aid
Resist the urge to overprune. Don’t worry if the tree’s appearance isn’t perfect. With branches gone, trees may look unbalanced or naked. You’ll be surprised at how fast they will heal, grow new foliage and return to their natural beauty.
Remove any broken branches still attached to the tree. Removing the jagged remains of broken limbs is a common repair after a storm. Done properly, it will minimize the risk of decay agents entering the wound. Prune smaller branches at the point where they join larger ones. Cut large broken branches back to the trunk or a main limb. As you prune, make clean cuts.
Repair torn bark. To improve the tree’s appearance and eliminate hiding places for insects, carefully use a sharp chisel or knife to smooth the ragged edges of wounds where bark has been torn away. Try not to expose any more of the cambium (greenish inner bark) than necessary because these fragile layers contain the tree’s food and water lifelines between roots and leaves.
Don’t top your trees. Untrained individuals may urge you to cut back all of the tree’s branches. Although storm damage may not allow for ideal pruning cuts, cutting main branches back to stubs is one of the worst things you can do to a tree. Stubs tend to grow back many weakly attached branches that are even more likely to break when a storm strikes. Also, the tree will need all its resources to recover from the stress of storm damage. Topping the tree would reduce the amount of foliage, on which the tree depends for the food and nourishment needed for regrowth. A topped tree than has already sustained major storm damage is more likely to die than repair itself. At best, its recover will be retarded, and it will almost never regain its original shape or beauty.
For more information on care of storm-damaged trees or other questions, contact the Limestone County Extension Office at 256-232-5510.