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24/7 in the Ottawa area

24/7 in the Ottawa area

The Different Types of Winter Tree Damage

Mar 13, 2021

Why Winter is the Toughest Season For Trees

There are plenty of misconceptions about winter tree damage. Trees are up against far more than just snow and ice. For example, did you know that it’s more common for trees to face damage from fluctuating temperatures than they are from temperatures that are simply low?

It’s a shame to see what a rough winter can do to your trees. We’ve put together a list of the most common culprits for winter snow damage, so you know what to look out for.

What Does a Damaged Tree Look Like?

There’s plenty to look for in your trees after a winter storm. A damaged tree might have broken branches, discolouration, or be covered in pests. However, it might not always be easy to determine whether a tree is at risk right away. As the snow and ice clear, it should be easier to identify damaged trees.

Problems Your Trees Could Face


Fortunately, freezing temperatures aren’t the most dangerous thing your trees can face. Still, some trees – particularly those that are already damaged or weak – might struggle under freezing temperatures.

Sometimes, the frost associated with freezing can wreak havoc on your trees. It might be hard to notice, but you’ll sometimes see shoots drooping or discoloured.

Sudden Drop or Rise in Temperature

The worst thing a tree can face in the winter is a sudden shift between hot and cold temperatures. During the winter, trees and plants often go dormant, meaning they cease metabolic activity. Dormant trees, however, are at risk for damage when the temperature drops abruptly.

Trees need a consistent decrease in temperature to acclimate properly, and an abrupt shift in temperature can ruin the process. In fact, a tree will be even more vulnerable if a consistently mild temperature precedes a drop.

A sudden rise can create damage too – the most common occurrence being sunscald, a type of canker that appears on trees with thin bark.

Trunk Cracks From Frost 

It’s common for frost to bring cracks to the end grain of wood – these cracks are categorized as “shakes” based on their shape. This commonly happens to oak trees, and often occurs due to the temperature’s rapid shifts across day and night. Specifically, the cracks are created because the outer layer of wood contracts faster than the inner layer.

Sunscald on Trunk

Sudden heat or exposure to sun can create problems for many popular tree types in the winter or spring. Specifically, this is called sunscald, a canker caused by overheating and subsequent drying. Sun exposure also reverses the acclimation process, making the tree even more vulnerable if the weather were to shift again.

Symptoms of sunscald include bark changing its colour and texture, cracked callus tissues, and sunken areas on the tree. It is common for sunscald to only appear on one side of the tree.

Winterburn on Tree Tips

Have you noticed your needles or tree tips turning from green to brown? This is called winterburn. It’s caused by a mix of factors: loss of water, sun damage, and drying from the wind. If the temperature decreases rapidly, the problem can become worse.

Damage to Branches

Storms bring snow and ice, and these can seriously damage even the most healthy tree branches. For this reason, it’s common to tie branches together whenever you anticipate a storm. It’s also not a bad idea to remove heavy snow before it freezes to limbs, but be careful how you do it. Brooming off snow is much safer than using a potentially dangerous object, like a shovel.

Damage to Roots

Freezing temperatures can affect the soil’s ability to support the tree’s roots. Trees with shallow roots are particularly susceptible to this problem. In the spring, trees with roots damaged from freezing soil will stop growing or die quickly. Fortunately, mulching can help reduce the risk of damage.

Damage From Salt

It’s common to pour salt on driveways and other outdoor surfaces in the winter. However, salt can damage certain parts of your trees. For example, you may witness discolouration or branch damage. Roots are at high risk for salt damage if the soil is poorly drained.

Damage From Animals

Pests and critters need to find somewhere to stay warm during the winter. Unfortunately, your trees make a nice spot. Due to scarcity of food, animals tend to munch on some of the parts of your trees.

How to Minimize Winter Damage

There’s only so much you can do to prevent winter damage towards your trees. Still, taking these steps can make a major difference:

  • Avoid placing salt too close to trees

  • After a snowstorm, gently brush off heavy snow with a broom

  • Tie branches together if you anticipate a snow or ice storm

  • Remove diseased or dying trees as soon as possible

When to Contact a Professional

A tree care professional can help diagnose damaged trees and remove ones that are too diseased or damaged to remain in your yard. If you have any questions about your trees’ safety following a rough winter season, contact our arborists today.

We take pride in offering our professional Tree Care services in Ottawa. Feel free to reach out to Green Thumb Tree Specialist for any of the following Tree Services: