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A Final Look at Freeze Damage

By Paul James

Although it may still be a few weeks before we know the full extent of the damage done to plants by last month’s tumbling temperatures, it’s safe to say that some plants fared better than others. So here’s my latest assessment of what got hit the hardest, and what you can do about it now. (Hint: Grab your pruners.)

Broadleaf Evergreens

Abelia, Aucuba, Azaleas, Boxwood, Holly, Laurels, Loropetalum, Magnolias, Nandina, Privet, Photinia, and Yucca.

Many of these plants look pretty rough, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re goners. It does mean that any branches or stems that are covered with brown leaves probably won’t be coming back, so you might as well prune the damaged portions now. If the entire plant is covered with brown leaves, you can cut the plant back hard (to within, say six or eight inches off the ground) and hope that new growth will emerge from the rootball, or you can replace it. 

In my yard, I’ve got two Loropetalums and a large, six-foot Abelia whose leaves are crispy fried. Those I plan on cutting back to the ground. But my boxwoods, hollies, Nandinas, and Photinia have just a few brown leaves here and there on the terminal growth of a few branches, so those I’ll just lightly prune. You can do likewise with laurel and Magnolia (especially ‘Little Gem’), which were damaged to varying degrees, from a little to a lot. On the other hand, and rather surprisingly, my Aucuba looks great!

I have no doubt that the solid green privet will bounce back, but I’m not as confident when it comes to the variegated form, as it’s the least hardy of the bunch. Sunshine privet is considered hardy here, but the weather pushed the limits of hardiness so I’m not sure at this point what to say about its odds of survival. And I feel the same way about Distylium and Yucca. We’ll have to wait and see.

As for azaleas, I’m cautiously optimistic. For one thing, some species are pretty darn hardy (down to -30 degrees in some cases), and while I have seen a fair amount of brown, crinkly leaves on them and a fair amount of leaf drop, I’d suggest waiting another two weeks or so before writing them off. But I do think many of the flower buds were damaged, so I don’t expect this spring’s show to be all that spectacular. I hope I’m wrong.

Deciduous Trees and Shrubs

Will We See Flowers in Spring? And What about Crape Myrtles?

It’s a little trickier to determine exactly how much damage has occurred on plants within this huge group because many of them haven’t started to leaf out yet. The developing flowers buds of those that bloom in spring may have taken a hit, much like azaleas, so I suspect we’ll see fewer (if any?) flowers on many of them, including crabapples, dogwoods, Forsythias, some Hydrangeas, lilacs, saucer Magnolias, and redbuds, just to name a few. However, I checked three large Forsythia in my yard this morning and the buds appear healthy. We’ll see.

I’m also concerned about crape myrtles, because their top growth may die back completely, such that they have to be cut back hard to the ground. That happened in 1986, and I’ll never forget having to remove 12’ trunks that were at least 4” in diameter from three multi-trunked ‘Natchez’ trees. If we’re forced to that extreme, we can only hope that new growth will appear within a few weeks. But it would be a shame to go through a summer without their familiar flush of flowers. 

You can always do a scratch test on the bark of any tree or shrub to see if the inner tissue has been damaged. With your thumbnail or a knife, gently scrape the bark from the branch. If you see brown, that portion of the wood is likely dead. If you see green, the branch is alive and well. And if the branch is pliable rather than brittle, that’s a good sign too.

This and That

From Perennials to Grasses to Vines

I’m not too worried about perennials, because the ground never froze hard in most areas and the snow that followed the brutal cold provided much needed insulation. 

Most ornamental grasses should be okay I think, but I’m not so sure about the hugely popular Pampas grass. And some bamboo may have been killed, notably the clumping Fargesia. Of the spreading varieties, ‘Bissetii’ is the hardiest, so while the top growth may have died, I think they’ll produce new shoots soon.

Most vines should be okay as well. The exception would be Crossvine, which is usually evergreen to semi-evergreen, but all five of mine are everbrown at the moment. I think I’ll be doing a lot of pruning on them soon and hope they put on new growth.

I wish I could give you a verdict on every landscape plant, but that would be darn near impossible. And as I’ve said in this and previous posts, in many cases we’re just going to have to wait and see. However, now is the time to prune everything anyway (with the exception of early spring bloomers), although you may be doing more of it than usual. 

Feel free to leave a comment regarding a specific plant you’re concerned about. I’m always here to help.

Happy gardening, ya’ll.

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94 responses to “A Final Look at Freeze Damage”

  1. Tonia Bartlett says:

    Do I need to cut back my peony to the ground?

    What about the hydrangeas, cut those also?

    • Paul James says:

      If the top growth of your peony is brown, yes. It should start producing new growth soon. I’d hold off on pruning the hydrangeas for another two weeks or so to see if they start putting on new growth.

  2. Mary says:

    Several of our Golden Euonymus shrubs are dropping all of their leaves. Will cutting those back to the ground provide a chance or are they gone?

  3. DeAnn Harris says:

    I have two star jasmine vines i planted last year that are covered in brown leaves. Do you think those have survived? How far should I cut those back?

  4. Patrick says:

    I have a Deodar Cedar that has turned brown. Any chance it comes back?

    All of my azaleas turned brown with leaves falling. I’m not giving up on those yet. It seems every cold winter the same thing happens and they come back. The might not bloom in Spring – but bloom well in Fall.

  5. Phyllis Adams says:

    My Fine Line bushes have looked rough for the last couple of years. For one a bag worm got to them a couple of years ago and last year with a new sprinkler system, they got too much water. I’m transferring them to large pots. When can I transplant and should I cut back and let regrow?

  6. Jane Brumley says:

    Lg. hedge, 30 ft. long x 18 ft. wide comprised of
    Ealeagnus and holly. “Ugly Agnes” looks horrid as
    all leaves are goldish-tan and dropping. Holly is
    mostly brown leaves but close to stem is bright
    green. This is 20+yr. old hedge.

    • Paul James says:

      Sounds like holly is going to be fine. You can prune or shear them back to green leaves and new growth will begin soon. I’m not so sure about Ugly Agnes, which btw I think is hilarious.

  7. Julie Chase says:

    Should I cut back crepe myrtle now?

  8. Stephanie Marie Ziara says:

    Great post, Paul. Thank you for all of your advice! I also loved the pruning videos on YouTube!

  9. Sandy says:

    My Hawthornes have brown leaves. What are the chances for them?

  10. Jim Painter says:

    Like Southwood I have some Live Oaks in my yard ( 7 to be precise) and all since the freeze have leaves that have turned silver/brown. They are dropping like mad now that our winds have kicked up. I know that we are at the extreme norther limit for these guys and my trees are very large.
    What’s the chance they will come through this now that they are almost leafless.

    • Paul James says:

      I’m hopeful, Jim, but I’m not all that optimistic. We have two old live oaks here at the nursery and they too are dropping leaves like crazy. Sad.

  11. Pamela Smitherman says:

    Any thoughts on large rosemary & sage plantings? Asparagus fern? We’ve had them 3 years.
    It’s so bizarre how everything is hit & miss. Shocked some of my pansies are thriving & others died.

    • Paul James says:

      Yeah, it is bizarre. Rosemary is probably toast, and I don’t think sage is likely to bounce back, especially if it’s in a container. Asparagus ferns are probably history.

  12. Jo Rohrbacker says:

    My twenty-five year old yaupon holly looks terrible! Between the hard freeze and one hundred or more Robbins that ate all of the berries during that freeze a lot of leaves have fallen off. The leaves that are left on the tree are a greenish brown do you think the tree will survive? It is located on the northwest corner of the house.

  13. Jo Rohrbacker says:

    Thanks Paul! I appreciate all of your gardening wisdom.

  14. Elaine Dishman says:

    My Photinias are at least 12 feet tall, and leaves are brown. I am not able to trim them back. Any suggestions?

  15. Karen Perkins says:

    My gardenias are entirely brown. What should I do?

    • Paul James says:

      I don’t have high hopes for Gardenias, although it’s possible some will bounce back. Be prepared to replace them. Sorry. I wish I had better news. And I hope I’m wrong.

  16. Meg Connolly says:

    My 6 year old Nobel Privet looks pitiful. The leaves are brown and the wind this week has left them pretty bare. Should I start making funeral arrangements?

  17. Susan says:

    Our Loblolly pines have more than 2/3 of their needles that r brown, are they goners?

    • Paul James says:

      Could be. But because they’re native pines, there’s hope. Look for new “candles” to begin forming at the tips of branches. That would be a good sign.

  18. Barbara Schwarz says:

    Thanks for the information, Paul. With all that pruning we’re going to have to do, I was wondering if you have a name and number of someone that sharpens and refurbishes gardening tools? Thanks! Barbara

  19. Jan Edwards says:

    My frost proof gardenia survived well but Jubilation is questionable at this point! Jan

  20. Rita Hale says:

    What about a cedar atlas that has completely turned brown? ?

  21. Gerard Gartside says:

    Hi Paul

    We have about a dozen or so Chindo Viburnums which are marginal for here anyway and looking very brown and dropping leaves right now. What’s best thing to do, prune and hope for the best or leave and hope for the best? Or pray!

    • Paul James says:

      All three choices have merit. I’d wait to see if any secondary leaf buds begin to form in the next two weeks or so. If they don’t, then cut back hard.

  22. Chris says:

    Great post, Paul! My Nandina have no green leaves. All brown and dropping. Wait and see or prune to the ground?

  23. Teresa says:

    The leaves on two cleyera shrubs I planted last year have turned brown and fallen off, but there are still some green leaves down at the very bottom of them. Can they be restored to a nice shape if I hard cut them back to the near-ground level green leaves?

  24. Laura Collins says:

    thank you, Paul. I have two Sunshine Ligustrum that are completely brown with no green at all, and two that have a little green in the lower center area if the plants. I’m hoping the two brown ones come back but they were just planted last Fall, so that worries me a bit.. Will do the scrape test too. Thanks for your timely article. You didn’t mention if watering is helpful? Although rain is in the forecast. Gophers ate all the roots of three rose bushes and six yuccas! Oh boy, I hate those critters. :- /

    • Paul James says:

      The privets may recover, but it might be a couple of years before they look decent again. No need to water. And sorry about your gopher problem. They’re such a pain.

  25. Aprell Davie says:

    I have a small red Nandina All of the leaf arms dropped and it is now a stick, but it is pliable. Should I dig it up and begin again?

  26. J Rowland says:

    I have two Bay laurels that are maybe three years old. All the leaves dried up. Any chance they will recover? I had them in a little portable greenhouse on the back porch but it was still very cold.

  27. The Hendels says:

    Three years living in Park Hill, from Minnesota. We are passionate gardeners. Learning at what works here is MORE than Mn of course. YUP! Looks like we have another summer of garden centering! And so goes retirement…. my only disappointment so far is 3 Gardinias. From now on I plant in pots and move into our greenhouse. Problem solved. Read every answer, love the info! Thank you!!!

  28. Lana Edwards says:

    What about Knock Out Roses? I also have a miniature, ground cover, version. How far should I cut them back?

  29. Jeff S says:

    I have a Carolina Jessamine that is usually green throughout the year that is mostly brown, especially on the upper portion. Should I cut back the brown?

  30. Gordon Sprouse says:

    What about Nandinas? My leave turned brown and fell off as well as the tiny branches just leaving sticks. Cut them down, or wait for new growth?

  31. Donna Skaggs says:

    I have two camelia plants that were beautiful before the last snow Storm. Now totally brown leaves. Are they gone. Do I also need to cut back my crape myrtles and how fat.

    • Paul James says:

      Don’t cut the crape myrtles yet. Wait and see if they start producing new growth in a few weeks. You can remove the brown leaves on the Camellias and wait to see if they bounce back, but it sounds like they may be goners. Scratch the wood to see if there’s any green tissue below the bark layer.

  32. Gordon S. says:

    Thank you. Just bought four new wintergreen boxwoods number seven at Southwood yesterday. Can’t wait to plan them

  33. Rita says:

    I have read every message and have found it so very helpful! Thank you for taking the time to respond. We moved here 3 years ago from west TX and are still learning about the different climate and vegetation. Your posts are terrific!

  34. Fred schone says:

    I put out extra trays of black oil sunflower seed for the birds during the bad weather. They made a mess on my lawn. Now I heard that sunflower seeds will prevent grass from growing. Is there any way to help my lawn art this point.

    • Paul James says:

      It’s the shells, not the seeds, that can be toxic to plants, so you can rake them up or move your feeder. And frequent watering below the feeder will wash the toxins out of the soil.

  35. Jane says:

    Golden Eunoymous is dropping leaves like crazy,
    but also has numerous buds. I’m torn…. cut back to ground or leave alone. If leave alone, I fear large bare gaps. Toss a coin?

  36. Jeannie Winton says:

    What about Leland Cypress? They’re all brown.

    • Paul James says:

      Honestly, I don’t think they’ll bounce back. And even if new growth begins to emerge from inside the trees, they’re going to look really strange for a few seasons. Sorry. I hope I’m wrong.

  37. Shelby Blackwell says:

    Our Indian Hawthorn leaves are brown and crunchy. I tried scratching the bark and didn’t see green. Is there any hope for them?

  38. Sandy says:

    I will probably have to replace 7 Hawthorns. What is your recommendation for new plants? 5 years ago I planted them as I thought the tiny pink flowers would return several times but they really didn’t. Do you have a suggestion what would be a good plant that will rebloom and is a nice size.

  39. Linda Gass says:

    We have a Mohave Pyracantha on the southwest side of the house. Home to many birds. The leaves are all dried with no new growth coming out at the bottom. Should we wait a little longer or is this one of those plants that was so damaged by the freeze?

  40. Beth Husen says:

    Tried to send you a pics of a couple bushes on south side of our house. They are a bush with green and yellow leaves that has branches that are growing up higher than the main bush. Is it ok to trim these now or when would be the right time to trim them?

  41. Lyla Elizabeth Raiford says:

    Paul, your blog is great and has answered most all my questions. The main one is my Nellie Stevens Holly I had in a #10 tub when the freeze hit; it has very few green leaves but the stems are green & the scratch test shows green. Is there a chance for it, should I go ahead & put it in the ground or just wait to see what happens? Thanks.

  42. Peggy says:

    After the freeze my 4-1/2′ tall, 8 yr. old compact Abelia is mostly still brown. There are 2 or 3 sprawling branches that do have green leaves, but the majority of it looks dead. Should I cut everything back to the ground? Also the leaves on the top half of my dwarf nandinas have turned dark brown with leaves still attached. The bottom half of each plant still has the typical variety of winter foliage colors. Dead or alive? Do I need to prune and if so how much?