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QUESTIONS OF FREEZE-DAMAGED PLANTS

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By William Johnson
Q: The branches on my Norfolk Island pine are mostly
brown from the winter’s freezing temperatures. Is
there any hope that the tree may recover or should I
have it removed?
A: The eye-catching, pyramidal symmetry and softly-
textured, dark-green foliage of Norfolk Island pines
growing in local landscapes has endeared it to local
gardeners since Norfolk Island pines survived all that
Hurricane Ike had to dish out (i.e., saltwater and wind)
in 2008.
Despite their common name, Norfolk Island pines
are not true pines; they are members of a prehistoric
family of conifers known as Araucariaceae. This landscape
tree acted the role of that pink bunny rabbit for
it took a licking from Hurricane Ike and kept on ticking.
It almost appeared that Norfolk Island pines were
invigorated by the ordeal!
Based upon the recent number of telephone calls
to the office about Norfolk Island pines, many homeowners
are concerned about the prognosis of their
trees after last winter’s devastating freeze.
Here’s how my April 8, 2009, column read: “Norfolk
Island pine trees have been stellar performers over
the past months since Hurricane Ike made landfall.
I have been very impressed by the lack of saltwater
damage sustained by these trees in areas where
other trees (including live oaks) sustained extreme to
lethal damage.”
Even though Norfolk Island pines are remarkably
salt-tolerant, they have a weak link: Very low temperatures
(30 to 32 degrees Fahrenheit) can cause the
growing tips to die and abort. Worse still, temperatures
below 25 degrees Fahrenheit can cause severe
freeze damage.
My recommendation is to wait until mid-June to
make an assessment on whether to remove Norfolk
Island pine trees that sustained extensive freeze injury.
I also recommend pruning out any dead limbs
but be sure to not prune out any portions of branches
that show evidence of new growth emerging. It may
require one or two years for trees to produce an acceptable
level of new growth, I have seen heavily
damaged trees make a decent recovery but it takes
time (and patience on the part of the homeowner) for
trees heavily damaged trees to recover.
Q: The fronds on my sago palm are brown and appear
to be dead. Should I remove the plant or is there
hope that the plant is still alive?
A: Sago palms make great focal points for flower
beds and landscapes. They are also very hearty
plants and can take the high heat of our summer
season and coolness of our subtropical winters. Last
winter’s freezing temperatures impacted most sago
palms.
Even so, I expect most plants will recover. Most
sago palms have a single growing point at the top
of the plant. Sago palms should be putting out new
growth now. If your plant has not done so, it likely
means that the plant did not survive the freezing
weather.
If you’re thinking of planting Sago Palms in your
landscape be aware that palm seeds are quite toxic
to pets like dogs and cats.
Q: The fronds on all my queen palms have been
brown since the winter cold front. Two of the palms
have produced small fronds at the very top of the
plants. Will they likely survive?
A: Queen palms (Syagrus romanzoffiana) are
among the least cold tolerant of the palms we commonly
grow in this area, and they were badly affected
by temperatures in the low 20s and teens.
Freezing temperatures may kill the growing point
(which means the tree is already dead or will die).
Fortunately, some queen palms with totally brown
fronds have managed to produce new growth and will
likely do well if provided with supplemental irrigation
during extended periods of dry weather conditions.
Cold damage to the trunk generally appears as
spots leaking a brown fluid. These spots may dry up
eventually and lead to no further damage. On occasion,
these wounds can become infected with decay
fungi leading to rotten areas. If the trunk and growing
point are OK, the tree will recover.
Unfortunately, there is nothing to be done after
freeze damage has occurred. It is now up to the palm
tree. If the growing point at the top of the tree survived,
the trees generally recover.
We need to be very patient with damaged palms. A
sign that a palm is dead is when the spear leaf in the
center of a palm canopy can be pulled out of the bud
or heart. Palms usually start their season’s growth
long after other shrubs and trees start their spring
growth flushes. If palms do start regrowth by early
summer, it is possible that the new, emerging fronds
will be misshapen.
If you want to replace cold-damaged palms this
year, plan to plant in early summer. In contrast to
most landscape trees, palms should be planted at
the hotter times of the year. Root growth on palms is
different than other landscape plants. Extensive root
growth occurs in June, July and August which is the
time of the year when many other plants are not growing
new roots.

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