Trees can 'take a pounding,' survive 'bomb cyclone' winter storm

Snow-covered tree branches blow in the wind along 16th Street South in Fargo on Thursday, March 14. David Samson / The Forum
Snow-covered tree branches blow in the wind along 16th Street South in Fargo on Thursday, March 14. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO ��� Called a “bomb cyclone” by meteorologists, Thursday's winter storm may have detonated with less than full force in Fargo-Moorhead, but ice and wind gusts topping 50 mph proved too much for some tree limbs.

In winter, evergreens typically are more vulnerable to limbs breaking off from heavy accumulations of snow, compounded by howling winds.

“They still have their foliage, the needles,” said Don Kinzler, The Forum’s gardening columnist and former extension horticulturist. “The weight of the snow or freezing rain can snap the branches off.”

If a branch snaps off, “Evergreens don’t recover as well as the leafy-type, deciduous trees,” he said.

Leafy trees, having shed their leaves in fall, are mere skeletons of branches, offering less to catch the wind or heavy, wet snow, Kinzler said.

The winter storm that swept the region on Wednesday and Thursday, March 13 and 14, deposited almost half an inch of moisture on Fargo-Moorhead in the form of rain, freezing rain, sleet and heavy snow.

Given those conditions, along with the fierce wind gusts of up to 56 mph, “I wouldn’t be surprised in the region if this is very hard on evergreens,” Kinzler said.

Leafy trees aren’t immune from broken limbs due to high winds or heavy snow or ice. “If big major limbs break off, that can permanently affect the shape of the tree,” he said.

In the case of deciduous shrubs, “The damage is usually minimal,” Kinzler said. “Most deciduous shrubs can be pruned heavily, and they come back better than ever.”

During the sunny calm before the storm, temperatures spiked to 39 degrees, igniting a short-lived thaw. Any chance that could have fooled trees into thinking spring had arrived?

Nope, Kinzler said.

“Everything is thoroughly dormant,” a protective, inactive state that plants enter in winter, he said. “Spring leaf-out should proceed as normal. This storm should not affect that.”

Bear Bowles, proprietor of Bear’s Tree Service, said his phone wasn’t ringing as the storm raged. But tree-trimming season is drawing near.

“We’re kind of getting ready,” he said. “March is a good time to trim ‘em. Summer will be here, and it’ll heal up.”

Trees that are trimmed before they produce their leaves heal faster. But most people wait until after the leaves arrive to trim branches.

“That’s actually the worst time to trim them,” he said. The energy required by the tree to heal, meanwhile, impedes growth and development.

Trees are surprisingly hardy, Bowles said.

“They can take a pounding,” he said. “Unless they get a lot of ice. It can be a catastrophe if you have ice storms.”