A Gardener’s Primer to Cold Hardiness, Part 2

Snowpocalypse!

Last week I discussed the mechanics of how cold hardy plants can survive temperatures far below freezing. Today we’ll consider the practical implications of this phenomenon and what, if anything, you can do to help your plants through cold snaps.

What happens when temperatures change at unusually high rates?

Remember, supercooling occurs when temperatures drop slowly, allowing water to leave living cells and freeze in the dead spaces between cells. When rates drop quickly, which can happen on sunny winter days once the sun goes down, water can freeze inside the cells before it has time to migrate into the extracellular space. When that happens, those cells die when ice crystals pierce the cell membrane. Sometimes this damage will be visible right away – you’ll see water-soaked areas in leaves, for instance, where the contents of the cells have leaked into the extracellular spaces.

Watersoaked leaf on left was frozen, while the one on the right was not.

In other cases you may not see damage until spring, especially in buds that have frozen. The scales prevent you from seeing what’s happened to the tissues in the bud, but once warmer temperatures arrive you will see brown or black leaf and flower buds. These are NOT diseased buds, though they are often colonized by opportunistic pathogens.

Partially damaged Rhododendron flower bud

What about wind chill?

The wind chill question is an interesting one. Despite the way it feels to you, wind chill does NOT lower the temperature below the ambient air temperature. It just cools things off faster than they would without the wind. For cold hardy plants, this has two important effects:

  • The rate of temperature decrease around the plant speeds up – so ice can form faster than normal. This can result in freeze damage to the plant as described above.
  • The wind itself is dehydrating, pulling away water from plant tissues and causing freeze-induced dehydration (as discussed last week). This also causes damage to susceptible tissues and is often called winter burn.

So even though the temperature itself is not lowered by wind, the rate at which it decreases and the additional dehydration stress means that plants can be damaged at temperatures they would normally survive in the absence of wind.

What can we do to help plants survive?

Before cold temperatures are expected, it is critical to mulch the soil well with a thick layer of coarse, woody mulch. This insulates the soil and roots, which are the least cold tolerant of all plant tissues. Roots never go dormant, so they are generally unable to supercool much more than a few degrees below freezing. Oh, and be sure your soil is moist (but not waterlogged). Moist soil is a better heat sink than dry soil.

Arborist wood chip mulch protects soil and roots throughout the year.

Next, be sure insulate freeze-susceptible plants. This can be done by constructing a cage of chicken wire around small trees and shrubs, filling it with leaves, and then wrapping it in burlap. Containers should be moved to the leeward side of the house or other building and grouped together. The containers need to be protected from freezing at all costs.

Heavy wet snow should be removed to avoid structural damage to woody plants.

Speaking of insulation, snow is a great insulator. But it’s not always best to leave it in place. If temperatures are cold and snow is dry and light, leave it in place to insulated tissues. But if temperatures are near freezing and the snow is wet and heavy, remove it as much as possible. Its insulative value is marginal and the damage that heavy snow can do to trees and shrubs is permanent.

 

 

A Gardener’s Primer to Cold Hardiness, Part 1

Ice crystallizing on the outside of plant tissues is often not damaging (Ralf Dolgner)

With record low temperatures in some parts of the country, gardeners are understandably worried about the ability of their perennial and woody plants to survive the cold. What today’s post will do is give you some context for understanding how plants can survive temperatures far below freezing.

Why ice floats and how this damages cells

Ice weighs less than water, but takes up more space (Wikipedia).

Everyone knows that ice floats, whether it’s an iceberg in the ocean or cubes in your favorite chilled beverage. Ice is lighter than water because its molecular structure is different: there is more space between water molecules in ice. When water freezes naturally, the molecules organize into hexagons, forming a crystalline lattice (which helps explain why snowflakes look the way they do). This hexagonal shape forces water molecules farther away from each other, resulting in a porous material that’s lighter than liquid water.

Hexagonal shapes of of ice crystals (Picryl)

As ice crystals grow, they take up more space than the water did in liquid form. You know this if you have ever left a filled can or bottle in a freezer. The pressure can blow off the lid or split the container – and the same thing happens to animal cells: the membranes are distended until they burst. But plant cells are different: there are cell walls outside the membrane which are rigid and prevent membrane rupture. However, ice crystals are sharp and can lacerate membranes, including those in plant cells.

Frozen bottles of water will either leak or explode (PxHere)

How cold hardy plants avoid freeze damage

Woody plants have evolved a mechanism to survive winters that allows ice formation in certain areas and prevents it in others. This process takes advantage of the fact that plant cells have walls, and that the area between the cells – called the extracellular space – is not alive. Extracellular space is filled with gases and liquids – including water. Water can freeze in these spaces without causing damage because there are no membranes in extracellular spaces, only cell walls. As ice freezes in these “dead” spaces, more liquid water is drawn into them by diffusion from the adjoining cells. There are two outcomes of this: one is that ice only forms in the dead space, not the cells themselves, and two is that the liquid inside the cells becomes more concentrated.

Water that is full of dissolved substances (like sugars and salts) is less able to form ice crystals because there are relatively fewer water molecules in concentrated solutions. We can see this when we add deicers to frozen walkways and roads. The ability of water to stay in liquid form at temperatures below freezing is called supercooling. Plants that are cold hardy are able to tolerate ice formation in dead tissues and avoid ice formation in living tissues by supercooling.

Salt allows water to stay in liquid form at temperatures below freezing (BU News Service)

Supercooling is different than flash freezing

We need to discard any comparison of supercooling to flash freezing, a process used for cryopreservation. Flash freezing rapidly lowers the temperature of the tissue or organism being preserved at rates far faster than what happens in nature. The water molecules don’t arrange themselves in a crystalline lattice as they freeze. Instead they form small crystals in an unstructured form, which don’t take up more space than liquid water. This means that ice doesn’t damage the cells, which are still viable once thawed.

Supercooling allows water to remain in liquid form at temperatures below freezing…but eventually everything freezes (Wikimedia)

Supercooling is a process that occurs under natural conditions, which usually mean slow decreases in temperature. This allows water to continue to move out of the cells into the extracellular space where it freezes. (There are exceptions to this naturally slow rate, and I’ll discuss those in a follow up post.)

There is a limit to supercooling

Unfortunately for plants (and gardeners) there are limits to supercooling. These limits vary with species but even the most cold hardy plants will eventually experience injury and death. The reason this happens, however, isn’t from the freezing itself, but from drought stress. Let’s look at what’s happening inside the cells during supercooling.

A schematic diagram of plant cell plasmodesmata (Wikimedia)

As water continues to diffuse into the extracellular spaces, the cell becomes less turgid; this is called freeze-induced dehydration. Without water forcing the cell membranes against the walls, the membranes start to pull away as water is lost. Eventually the membranes and plasmodesmata (which connect living cells to one another) are stretched and break. These cells are now dead – they are isolated from the rest of the plant and the torn membranes allow liquid to seep out. So cells, tissues, and entire plants that die from low temperature stress are usually killed by drought stress!

And a photomicrograph of plasmodesmata connecting plant cells (Wikimedia)

In my follow up post, I’ll discuss the practical significance of this phenomenon, including rapid temperature changes in natural and the influence of wind. And, of course, some suggestions on how to help plants survive these stressful conditions.

Let’s be rational about roots

One of my colleagues alerted me to a blog post on tree myths currently making the rounds on social media. As a myth debunker myself I was particularly intrigued by the last myth “Root Pruning Stimulates Root Branching:”

“When planting a tree’s root ball, It is very tempting to cut back on roots that are circling the ball. It is very often thought that a dense root ball will stimulate new feeder root growth…but that is not the case.

“Don’t worry about encircling roots as they will correct that on a new site.

(Yeah right)

“Most new root growth occurs at the end of existing roots. Root pruning is often done at the nursery to accommodate packaging and to resume growth before the final sale. If you are planting the tree at its final site, it may be best that you gently break up the root ball but never prune root tips.”

Most surprising of all was the statement at the end of the post which cited an Extension publication by Dr. Ed Gilman at the University of Florida.

Let’s straighten this out (pun intended).

First of all, root pruning DOES stimulate new root growth. It’s just like the response you see when you prune the crown of a plant – the buds below the cut become active and develop into new shoots. There are growing points behind the cut ends of roots which act in the same manner.

Young root branching

Second, circling roots will NOT correct themselves after planting. If they are flexible, you can tease them out to radiate from the trunk. If they are woody, you will have the same luck straightening them as you would in straightening a dowel. If anything, it’s going to break. Not bend.

Seriously. You think this root is going to straighten out?

Finally, root elongation (growth) DOES occur at the end of existing roots – IF they are intact. If they’ve been cut, then we’re back to my first point.

This is basic plant physiology. The response of roots to pruning has been known for several decades. So how could the University of Florida publication be so wrong?

Excessively long roots can easily and safely be pruned before planting

I was able to track down the publication “Dispelling Misperceptions About Trees“. It was written in 1991 and has since been archived – meaning that it’s not considered to be a current source of information any longer. But let’s take a look at what it says, especially the underlined portion:

 Root pruning does not stimulate root branching all the way back to the trunk. Roots are often pruned before moving a tree in hopes of creating a denser root ball.However most root growth after root pruning occurs at the end of the root just behind the root pruning cut, not back toward the trunk. Therefore, dig the root ball of a recently root pruned tree several inches beyond the location of the root pruning. Root pruning should be conducted 6 to 10 weeks before moving the tree. Root pruning more than 10 weeks before moving the tree will reduce the advantages of pruning, because regenerated roots will quickly grow outside of the root ball.”

Root pruning when these trees were dug results in many new flexible roots

This says exactly what I stated in my first point: root pruning stimulates new root growth – which is root branching.

Dr. Gilman’s document goes on to say:

“Roots circling around a container do not continue to grow in a circle once the tree is planted in the landscape. Roots frequently circle within the perimeter of a container several times before the tree is planted into the landscape. The portion of the root which grew in the container does not straighten out, but new growth on this root will not continue to circle.”

So yes! You DO need to worry about those circling roots!

Circling roots turned this crape myrtle into a crap myrtle (Courtesy of Roger Duvall)

In 1991 Ed was an assistant professor at UF and went on to write hundreds of Extension publications and research articles during his career. And in 1991 he was well aware of how root pruning affects root growth.

The moral to this story: read your sources carefully and cite them accurately. And if what you read doesn’t jibe with the current state of science, ask questions!

What’s in YOUR honey? It may not be the nectar you expected.

This month’s National Geographic has a brief article from an ongoing study of the DNA profiles of urban honey. While we can all observe honeybees visiting flowers in our own gardens, until recently we could only assume what nectar they were collecting for honey production. This tantalizing snippet completely blew me away.

Honey collection

The study, undertaken by an entomologist who founded the Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary, is sampling urban hives from major cities, including Boston, Portland (OR), New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC. For each of these cities, National Geographic reports the top three plants for honeybees based on relative DNA levels.

Here’s what I found amazing about this research:

      • The top sugar sources are from TREES. Not wildflowers. We don’t see bees visiting trees as easily as we see them visiting flowers, so our perceptions are biased. Over 75% of the sugar used for urban honey is from trees.

        Honeybee visiting flowering tree
      • The trees that are most popular for bee visitation are not necessarily native to those regions. Seattle bees, for instance, prefer linden and cypress trees, neither of which are part of the native coniferous forest. Likewise, the despised eucalyptus trees of San Francisco are one of the top three sugar sources.

        Flowers and leaves of linden
    • You’ll notice that I didn’t use the word “nectar” in describing what bees are collecting. That’s because much of the sugar they are gleaning isn’t coming from flowers. It’s coming from sap-sucking insects like aphids that produce honeydew. Bees apparently collect honeydew as well as floral nectar.

      Aphids!
    • Urban areas usually have higher plant diversity than rural areas, given the variety of woody and herbaceous plants that people use in their gardens and landscapes. The researchers speculate that this higher plant diversity may be one reason that urban hives are healthier and more productive than rural ones.

      Garden beehive

Many gardeners operate under the assumption that native plants are the best choice for gardens and landscapes. Though certain landscapes (like those undergoing ecological restoration) should only be planted with natives, there is no evidence-based reason that we shouldn’t be using non-invasive, introduced species as part of our planting palette.  In fact, research has demonstrated that tree species nativity plays only a minor role in urban landscape biodiversity: most animals learn to use new resources in their environment. Honeybees, considered to be “super-generalists” insects, are demonstrating that in spades.

Upside-down growing

I was poking through old photos and came across this oddity:upsidedowntrees

What you are looking at is Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) being grown hanging upside down. I saw this year ago at a nursery in Japan. (You are also probably looking at a disaster of girdling roots in those tiny plastic pots, but that’s another topic) When I asked about them, I was told that they are weeping forms, and grown this way temporarily before being planted in the ground right-side up.
Looking at the image, it makes me think that the particular variety grown here might have a mutation that makes them negatively gravitropic, and so respond to the pull of gravity in the opposite way a normal plant would. (For more on that see my earlier post on gravitropism in corn) Growing them upside down would allow them to produce a fairly normal branching pattern, and then once plants, new growth would, presumably, cascade down from the established trunk and stem.
Anyway. That’s your oddity for the day.
Joseph Tychonievich

Trash or Treasure?

You’ve probably heard certain plants dismissed as “trashy” –  but what does that mean?  We have a delightful Magnolia macrophyla in our campus garden – with huge foliage, creamy blooms, the native factor, etc., it draws all kind of attention. So I’d hesitate to call it trashy. But the autumn leaf drop clutters the ground with leaves the size of a sheet of legal paper.  They aren’t rake-able, or really mow-able, have to gather by hand into “sheaves”.  And there’s a LOT of them.

Here’s another example:

We plopped a 3-gallon Koelreuteria bipinnata (many common names, such as Chinese Flame Tree, Bougainvillea Golden Rain Tree, etc). into one of our home perennial borders a few years ago. As Dirr notes, it started out “beanpole-like in youth” but has grown into a nice vase shape. It hit puberty last year, with a smattering of flowers and fruit. This year has been a different story – I swear it doubled in size; and judge for yourself its full-on adulthood:

KPblooms

Late August and early September brought huge panicles of yellow flowers – eye-popping for us, and a late-season bounty of pollen and nectar for our honey bees (and every other bee and wasp in the area). You could hear the canopy “buzzing” from several yards away.

The yellow petals then fell away, carpeting the grass and part of our deck. It their place developed shrimp-pink, papery capsules.

KPpodshabitI cut one of the capsule-filled branches off; and a month later everything is still pink and intact in a vase of water. I also noted each of three capsule sections bears one dark round glossy seed. Uh-oh. That’s a lot of seeds.

KPpodsWith our first freeze, the leaves fell – in big chunks consisting of a tough foot-long petiole and a bunch of leaflets. My mower didn’t do a good job chopping them up – ended up having to rake and move to compost pile. What the mower DID do was fling the papery capsules far into other beds.

KPtrashFlashy? Yes.
Trashy? Yes.
Invasive? Not sure yet. Will report back if seedlings appear!

Comments welcome – tell us about your favorite “trashy treasure”!

A Resilient Citrus Tree Rebounds

Cit3Spring1

Sad Citrus

The last two winters have been pretty brutal on my citrus trees.  Their winter home is the enclosed, but unheated, south facing entrance foyer.  Usually, this is a perfect spot.  Sunny, and with temperatures usually in 45-60 degree range.  But when the polar vortex brought record cold to the Mid Atlantic region back in February, they were hit hard, and I had my doubts that this 13 year old specimen would survive.

Cit3Fall1

Happy Citrus

But it bounced back pretty well, after a season in the sun, so I figured it should be rewarded … I’d give it a new home, replacing its split container … and document the process here.

process1

Prep Area

drill

Drainage Holes Drilled

Process2

Whew! No Pebbles in the Bottom!

Parsley

Rescued Parsley

girdle1

Uh Oh, The Dreaded Circling Root.

girdlecut

Snip Snip

DoneChips

Wood Chip Mulch, of Course

DoneDone

Voila!  Ready to Move Inside

 

Top Ten Trees and Shrubs with Great Fall Color

 

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in full fall color
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) in full fall color

As promised in my Sept. 9 post of “The Science Behind Fall Color”, I would address trees and shrubs with outstanding fall color. It was hard limiting it to only ten trees and ten shrubs, since I found 5 common shrub species of maples alone, so I cheated a bit and grouped the maples, oaks, etc. into one group so that my list was not entirely all maples.

'Robin Hill' apple serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora 'Robin Hill')
‘Robin Hill’ apple serviceberry (Amelanchier x grandiflora ‘Robin Hill’)

I have seen the below plants with reliable fall color in northern, southern and eastern landscapes. These plants “light” up the landscape in autumn. For outstanding, long lasting autumn color, plant the below trees and shrubs with herbaceous plants which bloom in fall such as asters, mums, sedums, monkshood, toad lilies, and Japanese anemones. Do not forget ornamental grasses with their showy seed heads extending the season of color and texture.

Sweet birch, cherry birch (Betula lenta)
Sweet birch, cherry birch (Betula lenta)

We used to recommend ash for fall color, but not any more due to emerald ash borer. Japanese barberry and burningbush are tops for fall color, but both species are highly invasive and not recommended. There are more plants with great fall color than the ones below. I would love to hear your favorites!

 

Top 10 Trees for Fall Color

1) Black gum, sour gum, tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), orange-red, scarlet to purple, outstanding

Black gum, sour gum, tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)
Black gum, sour gum, tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica)

2) Maples, especially:

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), bright yellow to orange-red

Red maple (A. rubrum), yellow, orange-red to bright red

Freeman maple (A. × freemanii), yellow, orange-red, red to reddish-purple

Paperbark maple (A. griseum), dark red to bronze

Japanese maple (A. palmatum), orange, red to purplish-red

Korean maple (A. pseudosieboldianum), deep orange to reddish-purple

Three-flower maple (A. triflorum), orange

Full moon maple (A. japonicum), yellow-orange to scarlet-red

Moosewood, striped-bark maple (A. pensylvanicum), bright yellow

3) Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba), bright golden-yellow

4) Thornless honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos f. inermis), bright golden-yellow

5) Quaking aspen, trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), bright yellow

6) Oaks, especially:

White oak (Quercus alba), dark red to wine

Red oak (Q. rubra), red to russet

Scarlet oak (Q. coccinea), red to scarlet

Black oak (Q. velutina), dark red

Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)
Scarlet oak (Quercus coccinea)

7) Apple serviceberry (Amelanchier × grandiflora), yellowish-orange to red

8) Buckeyes, especially:

Yellow buckeye (Aesculus flava), golden-yellow to orange

‘Autumn Splendor’ buckeye (A. × arnoldiana ‘Autumn Splendor’), deep, burgundy-red

‘Homestead’ buckeye (A. × marylandica ‘Homestead’), orange-red

9) Birch, especially:

Yellow birch (Betula alleghaniensis), bright yellow

Sweet birch, cherry birch (B. lenta), bright yellow

Paper birch, canoe birch (B. papyrifera), yellow

10) Yellowwood (Cladrastis kentukea), bright yellow to gold

 

Top 10 Shrubs for Fall Color

1) Large and dwarf fothergilla (Fothergilla major and F. gardenia), yellow-orange to red, outstanding

Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major)
Large fothergilla (Fothergilla major)

2) Common and vernal witchhazels (Hamamelis virginiana and H. vernalis), bright yellow to golden-yellow

Vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis)
Vernal witchhazel (Hamamelis vernalis)

3) Virginia sweetspire (Itea virginica), dark reddish-purple

4) Black and red chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa and A. arbutifolia), red-orange, wine-red to purple

Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)

5) Sumacs, especially:

Shining sumac, winged sumac (Rhus copallinum), bright red to scarlet

Prairie Flame® shining sumac (Rhus copallinum 'Morton')
Prairie Flame® shining sumac (Rhus copallinum ‘Morton’)

Staghorn sumac (R. typhina), orange to scarlet

Smooth sumac (R. glabra), orange to scarlet-purple

Fragrant sumac (R. aromatica), orange, red to purple

6) Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia), reddish-orange to wine

7) ‘Tor’ birchleaf spirea (Spiraea betulifolia ‘Tor’), orange to reddish-purple

8) Viburnums, especially:

Withe-rod viburnum (Viburnum cassinoides), orange-red, crimson to purple

Blackhaw viburnum (V. prunifolium), reddish-purple

Arrowwood viburnum (V. dentatum), depends on cultivar, yellow, red to purple

American cranberrybush viburnum (V. opulus var. americanum, formerly V. trilobum), yellow to reddish-purple

Doublefile viburnum (V. plicatum f. tomentosum), wine-red

‘Wavecrest’ Siebold viburnum (V. sieboldii ‘Wavecrest’), red to burgundy

9) Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus), deep reddish-purple

Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus)
Cranberry cotoneaster (Cotoneaster apiculatus)

10) Virginia rose (Rosa virginiana), deep reddish-purple

 

 

Laura Jull, Ph.D.

a.k.a.: The “Lorax”

Bad power line pruning

Driving home today, I saw this lovely sight:

powerlinepruningOur local utility company has been busy butchering trees around the power lines.

Every plant person I know complains about this, but I honestly don’t think there is much hope for a change. Power companies don’t want limbs falling on the electric cables during storms, and they’re not likely to start spending money to hire real arborists to do the pruning.

What I really wish is that people would start thinking a little more before putting in a tall tree directly under electric lines. I’m sure these went in as cute little babies, I know it can be hard to visualize what a small tree will grow into, but we do really need to do a better job of it. If you are looking to plant, take the time to look up the tree in question and see how fast it is going to grow. Google will usually tell you, and if you are planing conifers, the American Conifer Society has an amazing website which will tell you the growth rates in inches per year of just about any conifer you can imagine. Check it out, and do the math, and see just how fast that little spruce is going to be causing problems before you start digging holes.

Little ball of horrors

One of the great things about doing a multi-author science blog is that there will be topics about which colleagues will disagree. One of those topics revolves around the best way to prepare woody rooted plants (trees and shrubs) before planting them. This is an area in arboricultural science that is evolving. A search through our blog archives will find many of these posts and for convenience’s sake I’ve linked one from each of us here.

From Jeff (2009)
From Bert (2014)
From Linda (2013)

Rather than belabor the points that Jeff, Bert and I have already made in our posts, I think I can sum up our major difference here: I like to bare-root trees and shrubs completely before planting (so I can correctively prune all flawed roots) while Bert and Jeff prefer a less invasive approach. What we do agree upon, however, is the deplorable condition of the roots of many trees and shrubs that end up in the nursery. Because I do practice bare-rooting trees, I thought I’d use today’s post as a rogue’s gallery of trees that should never have made it to the retail nursery. (All of these trees were ones that I bare-rooted and root-pruned myself before planting – and all are thriving.)

Ginkgo "knee" root
Ginkgo “knee” root
Interlocking redbud roots
Interlocking redbud roots
Junky Japanese maple
Junky Japanese maple
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, only root-washing could find the root crown of this tree.
The duct tape around the trunk is where the burlap bag began. While the roots are in pretty good shape, root-washing revealed the root crown of this tree (which the “at grade” part of the tree) 10″ below the top of the bag