Don't pick trees solely based on ice storm

-A A +A
By Dennis Morgeson

As expected, I had several people ask me what was the best tree species to plant in place of the ones being cut down and they want ones that will survive the next ice storm. Well, the answer is, there isn’t one. All tree species sustained damage, however, some worse than others.  For instance, “Bradford” pear was destroyed and it’s a no-brainer to not plant them again, because they also fail in high winds pretty regularly.


There are some that were damaged pretty badly but they still have their place in the landscape. The one that comes to mind that was broken pretty badly was the river birch. These were topped from the ice and most will be cut down but it’s not necessarily the main reason not to plant. River birch has beautiful bark for winter interest, its resistant to the bronze birch borer that kills the white birch, its drought and flood resistant, wind resistant, and it provides good shade. Now, why did they break so badly in the ice storm? If you look around, river birch is generally planted in clumps or threes. This is to provide more winter interest by having more bark at eye level and it provides a visual interest to the landscape. Trees planted in clumps lean outward away from each other and as the ice accumulated, it pushed the leaning branches down until they broke. Basically, it takes less ice load to break a leaning branch than an upright branch. So, to help river birch survive ice storms plant single trunked trees.


With everyone thinking about planting trees to survive ice storms we need to keep in mind these events are few and far between and there may be other reasons for picking or not picking a particular tree for the landscape. The trees that survived the  ice storm with the least damage, and this was true in the ice storm in Lexington a few years ago, was the Tree of Heaven or Ailanthus altissima. Now, isn’t that a nice name for a tree! How it got its name I don’t know but I can assure you that heavenly it is not. The tree specialist at UK calls it the Tree of Hell! It routinely breaks in wind storms, stinks when it blooms (not pretty either), it seeds itself everywhere (if you get a female), it’s messy, and it even stinks when you break a limb or sprout. It’s also native to Asia and can be intrusive to our native plants. So, it has one good characteristic and that is surviving ice storms. Should you plant it for that one reason? No, we don’t have ice storms very often and you should look for a tree to meet your needs, not one that can just survive an ice storm.  According to my grandparents who are pushing 80 they haven’t seen an ice storm this bad that they can remember (94 was bad but not like this), so plant a tree for the characteristics that you like such as bloom, autumn foliage, drought tolerance, wind tolerance, insect and disease tolerance, or for shade but not just because it can survive a major ice storm that we may have next week or 80 years from now.


Next week in this space I am going to discuss some good trees for Kentucky landscapes including trees for shade, autumn color, size, etc.  We need to pick trees that fit our needs not ones that can just survive an ice storm!


I still have room in all sessions for the “Wheelbarrow Series” but you need to sign up soon to make sure you get a spot.  I must admit I am a bit disappointed in the turnout from Washington County. So far I have more people from Marion County and Nelson County than I do from Washington. Although I welcome people from surrounding counties to attend my programs, I am the Agent for Horticulture for Washington County and I would prefer for you  to make up the majority of the attendees to my programs. You aren’t going to let Marion and Nelson Counties beat you, are you? If you would like to sign up, call 336-7741 soon!