Rehabilitating frostbitten fruit trees

Even the hardiest citrus trees struggle to survive days of ice, snow and frigid temperatures. Those that do can benefit from a little TLC from you.

There are many plants that can survive cold conditions, but there are times when weather is worse than anticipated and extreme freezing temperatures wreak havoc on our plants.

That’s exactly what happened to local oranges, tangerines, grapefruits and other citrus nearly two years when winter storm Uri arrived in San Antonio — and settled in for several days.

Even the hardiest citrus trees — those established for many years — can’t endure days of ice, snow and frigid temperatures. In 2021 many were reduced to bare leafless trunks.

With the passage of time, a few of those dry stumps have finally begun to recover, sprouting tangles of fresh green shoots now fighting for space to be the tallest and strongest. In these cases, we can help them with a little careful horticulture and training.

Before training a new shoot, make sure it’s the tree species you truly want. Unfortunately, if your old citrus tree was grafted, it’s almost certain any saplings coming from the ground are just from the former rootstock. On grafted trees, you can often see a woody line near the base of the trunk where the desirable fruit tree was attached to a hardy rootstock. Sour orange is the most common citrus rootstock and left to grow back it looks like a mass of thorns with small unpalatable fruit, clearly much different from the tree you may remember from before.

But if your tree was originally grown from seed, the saplings you see now can grow true with the intended fruit. And that’s very good news.

Once you determine the saplings are the species you originally wanted, it may be time to select a leader from all the shoots to produce the strong growth to help the tree form. From the shoots that are clearly growing as an extension of the original tree root, choose the one that’s surpassed the others in growth and shape.

The other shoots will have to be suppressed, i.e., pruned or terminated with extreme prejudice. This will help existing roots and any remaining shoots provide more nutrients and hormones to the remaining leader.

Maintain your recovering tree with the care you would give any new citrus during the first three years. That means protect it as much as possible during frost and provide it with necessary nutrients, especially nitrogen, iron, zinc, and manganese.

In time, new trees can take shape to shade our gardens with the evergreen greenery and sweetly perfumed white flowers we remember. And they’ll provide juicy fruits to share with family and friends again.

Picture of David Abrego
David Abrego
David Abrego is a conservation consultant for SAWS. David, a native of Panama, likes to spend his time surrounded by plants and fruit trees. So if you can’t find him at home, he’s probably working in a greenhouse. David is also an arborist and an irrigation technician.
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