How Trees Can Be Damaged and Affected by Cold Weather

When cold weather hits we are lucky enough to be able to sit inside and wait out the storm in front of the TV, wrapped in a blanket with the heating on. Obviously, trees don’t have the same opportunity to do that, so they have a different way of dealing with the cold. Most plants will go dormant during the cold winter months to keep them safe so they can wake up in spring and begin geminating again, however not all trees can protect themselves and can be damaged and affected by cold weather.

Fluctuating Temperatures

Fluctuating temperatures can be devastating for trees. It doesn’t matter how hardy a species the tree is, the temperature keeps dropping and then rising, you are far more likely to get frost cracks in tree. These frost cracks can increase the chances of the tree dying as the thawing action of the frost can push the tree apart from the inside out. If this does happen, you are not able to save the tree and will need a professional to remove it.

Rapid Temperature Drops

We usually expect winter to gradually come on, we don’t expect to wake up on a Sunday and it be -5 when it was 14 degrees the day before. Rapid temperature drops can be damaging to all types of tree and fruit trees are affected by this more so. A rapid temperature drop means that the tree hasn’t had time to prepare itself for the new season. Trees can also suffer from frost bite, if the temperature has dropped suddenly and there is a high level of moisture in the air, the tree leaves may turn black and fall off.

Ice Build Up

If you live in an area where there is heavy snow or heavy ice build-up, you will be used to seeing trees buckle under the weight of this. Older more stable trees are able to tolerate a higher level of ice build-up than their younger counterparts and evergreens have little to no issue in these conditions, as they have evolved to deal with it.

Flowering and Fruit Trees

Fruit trees are not really built to handle cold weather, especially heavy snow and icy conditions. If hit with a cold snap trees are affected in a variety of ways, they can suffer from shoot dieback and bud death. This means that all new shoots will die off in the cold, when usually the latter part of winter is when they would be growing.

This will result in limited flowering in spring and little to no fruit during the harvest season. Fruit trees are suited to temperate climates where the temperature fluctuations don’t have a large variance. If you do get a sudden and drastic temperature drop that lasts for a long period of time, you may find that your fruit trees won’t flower in the spring. If the temperature drop is so severe, it may in fact kill the tree entirely.


It’s not just the tree that is impacted in winter; the soil is also heavily impacts which can affect the life of the tree. In winter, soil can go exceptionally dry, so the tree cannot get nutrients through its root system like it normally would. If it looks as though your tree is struggling, try watering it and see if that helps.

The root systems are not as versatile as the trunk and the limbs of the tree, if the ground freezes quickly, this can kill the tree but watering it would be the worst thing you could do. It is far too easy to over water a tree if you think the ground has frozen as you can potentially drown the roots and cause them to rot. The best course of action is to leave the tree be and see what happens to it in the New Year and the turn of the season.

Spring Freeze

Just when you think you are out of the woods and the temperatures are on the turn, a spring freeze happens. This is where temperatures have risen and the trees have begun to acclimatize to the new temperatures, new growth has happens and flowers are beginning to emerge. Spring freezes can decimate all new growth and unfortunately, there isn’t a lot we can do about it. Again, trees are affected by this, more so than other types of tree as they are not as hardy as hardwoods and evergreens.

Final Considerations

Trees can be impacted and affected by cold in a variety of ways, especially when we are hit with an unexpected cold drop that is well below seasonal averages and happens when we least expect it. It is temperature fluctuations like this that will cause the most damage to our trees, mainly because they are not yet acclimatized to these temperatures.

Snow and ice can also damage trees, but the damage will be far more obvious than a tree that has died due to fluctuations of temperatures. If you are thinking of planting trees, research the hardiest of species that are suitable for the type of conditions and area that you live in. Otherwise you may find that your trees don’t last the winter if you haven’t considered these factors. Trees are just as affected by cold as we are, especially if they are not given the time to go dormant in the winter or slowly wake up in spring without having to deal with a spring frost.