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What to Do About Ice Covered Trees?

Updated December 19, 2018
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John Ball

Professor, SDSU Extension Forestry Specialist & South Dakota Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Forest Health Specialist

pine tree needles with ice
Needles covered by ice.

We are experiencing periods of freezing rain across the state. This weather has left many trees covered with a 1/8 to 1/2 inch glaze of ice. The ice weight is resulting in bent and broken branches. Here are a few do’s and don’ts for dealing with ice on trees.

What to Do?

First, some of the “do’s.” If the lower branches on evergreens are bending, these can be propped up with boards to keep them from snapping. If the branches have bend so they are already touching the ground, they should be left in place as the ice weight is now being supported by the ground. However if the branches are at risk of bending further, place a wooden support under the branch and gentle lift the branch up a little. The prop does not have to be high enough to restore the branch to its original position; it just has to support the weight.

a pine tree branch touching the ground in winter
Scotch pine branches bent by ice.

Arborvitaes, an evergreen with multiple upright trunks, will often have the trunks bend outward and either break or remain in this position come spring. These plants can be temporarily supported with rope tying the trunks to keep them in their upright position. The rope will need to be removed before spring, otherwise it could girdle the trunks as they begin to grow.

a broken brown tree branch
Amur maple stem split by ice weight.

Props can be used to support the lower branches of deciduous trees. Apples, Amur maples and crabapples often have their branches or stems bend and snap in ice storms. Props can support the weight and prevent the stems from bending further.

If the branches are already breaking, it is best to remove them with proper pruning. This will prevent the branch from tearing bark off the trunk when it does separate. This should only be done on small trees where the branches can be safely pruned from the ground. If the branches are high enough to require a ladder, the task is best left to professionals.

If branches have already torn away from the trunk, the torn stub should be properly pruned. There is no rush to complete this task as the tree is dormant but this pruning should be completed before the plant resumes growth next spring. If the torn branch stubs are too high to reach from the ground then this task should also be left to a professional tree company.

What Not to Do?

Now, a few “don’ts.” Do not knock the ice from trees and shrubs. This force may break branches as well as dislodge ice. Also do not spray the plants with water to melt the ice; this may only result in additional ice build-up. Ice melt products such as liquid magnesium chloride, should not be sprayed on the plant. While this may result in some melting, the chloride is toxic to plant tissue.

Related Topics

Trees