Ice-Damaged Trees

One cannot appreciate the damage ice causes to trees until they've experienced a heavy ice storm. Fortunately, major ice storms do not occur on a regular basis. The trees that normally take the brunt of the damage - Chinese and Siberian elms, poplars, silver maples, birches and willows - are the predictable victims. All of these species have brittle wood and are easily damaged by ice and wind storms.

Homeowners often plant fast-growing species like the ones mentioned above for rapid shade. Fast-growing trees normally have brittle wood and develop weak, V-shaped crotches that easily split apart under added weight. Often, trees with extensive internal rot and decay that may not have been evident from the exterior receive severe damage.

Many times these trees overhang the house, driveway or power lines servicing the home. When large limbs or tree tops are broken in an ice storm, they can cause major damage and expense.

For homeowners with trees with major limb or top damage, two questions should be addressed. The first one is: "Does the condition of the tree warrant efforts to save it or should it be removed?" Major tree repair can be quite expensive and should only be attempted if a major portion of the tree is still intact and efforts can be made to maintain its attractiveness and value to the property. If the whole side or top is gone, it's questionable whether it's worth spending the time and money to salvage the tree. This is especially true if it's one with brittle wood that lends itself to similar problems in the future. While no one wants to remove a large, mature tree, the prudent decision may be to replace it with a young tree possessing desirable qualities.

The second question to consider is: "Can you handle the damage repair yourself or should you seek professional help?" Small limbs can be removed easily with pruning shears or a pole-lopper provided they are within your reach. Do you feel comfortable climbing a ladder up into the tree? Power equipment should never be operated from a ladder or in the tree where firm footing is questionable. Removing hanging limbs should be left to professional tree services. Look for them under Tree Service in the Yellow Pages. Make sure they carry proper liability and workmen's compensation insurance before allowing them to start the job.

What damage is repairable and what is not? Broken limbs should be removed. Generally, if the branch has not split away from the trunk, the broken segment should be removed back to the next major adjacent branch. Do not leave branch stubs. Stubs encourage rot and decay.

For trees with tops broken out, remove the snags to the next major interior branch. Generally, this will be a major fork. Avoid topping the tree to allow small side branches to grow out and continue the tree's height growth. These branches will be weak and prone to breakage.

To avoid stripping the healthy bark from the trunk when a heavy, broken limb is removed the 3-step procedure should be used. The first cut is made on the underneath side of the branch about 18 inches out from the trunk. The cut should be approximately half-way through the branch or until its weight first starts to bind the saw. The next cut should be made on top of the branch about 1 to 2 inches in front (toward the end of the branch) of the bottom cut. Continue cutting until the branch drops free. The last cut removes the remaining branch stub from the trunk. The cut should be made from the top of the branch at the branch collar. The collar is the slight ridge where the branch attaches to the tree's trunk or another major branch.

In certain situations, a damaged limb may strip healthy bark from the tree. To repair this type of damage, cut any ragged edges of torn bark away from the damaged area. Take care to limit the amount of healthy, tight bark removed. To speed the healing process, the repair cut made with a sharp knife into healthy bark should leave a wound shaped like an elongated football with the pointed ends of the cut running vertically along the trunk or limb or as near parallel to the initial damage as possible.

Trees with split trunks or major limb forks may possibly be salvaged if the split is not too extensive. Repairing this type of damage will involve a cable and brace technique that should be left to a professional tree service.

Some small to medium-sized trees may have been uprooted. It may be possible to straighten these trees and brace them with guy wires. Do not attempt this unless one-half to one-third of the tree's original root system is still in the soil and the remaining exposed roots are relatively compact and undisturbed. Before straightening the tree, remove some of the soil from beneath the root mass so the roots will be placed below the existing grade level. Attach two to three guy wires to the trunk and anchor the wires 10 to 12 feet away from the tree.

Corrective pruning to help improve the shape of damaged trees is best done now. The tree will respond quickly this spring if it has not been severely damaged. Take care not to remove more than one-third of original branches. This will severely retard the tree's growth in the spring and may damage it beyond recovery.

Treatment of the trunk and limb wounds with tree paint is not necessary. In fact, research shows that painted areas can lead to increased rot and decay due to trapped moisture in areas where the paint cracks open. You may want to fertilize your tree this spring with a good quality tree fertilizer. Check with a local nursery or garden center, or your county Extension officefor recommended rates.

Developed by Ron Wolford,Extension Educator, Horticulture, University of Illinois Extension.