How to evaluate damage to trees

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Sara Welch photo.

Last Friday, the scenery driving through Portage County, Ohio, looked like a frozen tundra. I stopped on my way home from work to take a picture of a pasture glistening in the setting sun.

Although I’m impatiently awaiting spring, I could appreciate the beauty of the scenery. The crystallized perfection of everything from the tree limbs in the distance to the wire fence along the roadside, caught my eye as it seemed to glitter in the sunlight.

Then I got home and failed to notice the tree that had fallen out of the woods and into the yard. That’s Friday afternoon in a nutshell. Everything just seems a little glossier.

However, when I did notice the fallen tree on Saturday, it got me thinking about the importance of assessing damaged trees during the spring. 

Snow and ice damage is one of the most significant and lasting impacts of winter on trees as they weigh down tree branches and cause breakage. Trees can suffer crown damage, splitting and loss of major limbs due to snow and ice damage. 

Assessing tree damage in the spring is important to prevent further damage, improve long-term tree health and ensure the safety of trees. Trees that aren’t properly pruned in the spring or after a storm can experience severe dieback, which can result in limbs that fall later.

Trees with winter damage that hasn’t been addressed can become more dangerous in the spring when the weather changes. Damaged limbs that produce a lot of sprouts are often, weak, poorly attached to the tree and prone to failure during spring and summer storms. Broken limbs that are hung up in a tree are hazardous for the same reason — they are likely to fall later. 

Additionally, pruning broken and damaged limbs reduce the chance of a tree becoming infected with diseases that can damage the tree even more.

Determining whether a tree can be saved

Determining whether a tree is too damaged to save can be tricky. Start by assessing the extent of the damage, tree age, tree condition and location of the tree.

Tree age. As they age, trees begin to grow slower and older trees do not seal wounds as fast as younger trees. Slow wound closure can prevent healing and leave a tree vulnerable to pests and diseases. An older tree will likely have a harder time recovering from significant damage than a younger tree.

Tree condition. What was the overall health of the tree like before it suffered snow and ice or storm damage? A tree that was healthy and free of pests and diseases is more likely to recover from damage than a tree that had preexisting health problems. Overall tree condition should be factored into determining whether a tree can be saved.

Location of the tree. The proximity of the damaged tree to your house, outbuildings or barns, electrical lines or any other structures, should be considered before attempting to save a damaged tree. If it poses any immediate safety concerns, it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution.

Assessing the extent of the damage. Assessing the extent of damage after a storm or winter weather can be done by evaluating the factors listed above and the amount of damaged limbs.

  • Slight damage. Situations of slight damage are characterized by enough strong limbs remaining on a healthy tree to save it, the loss of only one major lib on a mature tree and young trees with the vertical stem at the top of the trunk and structure for branching intact.
  • Borderline damage. In cases of borderline damage when a healthy tree has lost a significant amount of limbs or a mature tree has lost more than one major limb, time can help determine whether it can be saved. Avoid over-pruning to allow the tree a growing season to recover when the tree is younger. Have the tree evaluated by a professional arborist to determine whether the tree can be saved and safely remove branches when the tree is more mature.
  • Extensive damage. Cases of excessive damage are evident when:
    • a rotten inner core or structural weakness in branching patterns causes a split trunk.
    • wounds are too large to heal.
    • all that remains of the tree is the trunk or the few remaining branches on the tree aren’t able to produce enough foliage for the tree to survive the growing season.
    • too much of the tree’s crown has been damaged and it probably won’t grow enough new branches and leaves to regain its shape.

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