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Plant docs: Give palms, area plants time to recover from February freeze

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A few reminders of February’s cold snap stand sentry around El Paso — palm trees with brittle, brown fronds rattling in the springtime winds, some with new leaves peeking through.

Area master gardeners and tree doctors said people should be patient with palms and other plants damaged by the intense cold, warning it could be a couple of months — if not seasons — before plants return to normal. 

“We have to live with the ugly for a little while,” said Denise Rodriguez, a horticulturist with the El Paso County Extension. “You have to wait it out and see what’s going to sprout, what’s definitely been killed.”

Rodriguez said gardeners should watch the base of low-growing shrubs, noting where green shoots emerge. 

“Once you start seeing that growth, then you can go ahead and cut back everything above that, that has died,” she said, adding that cutting back too soon removes a protective barrier that can protect plants if temperatures drop again.

For palms, it’s a little different. Brent Pearson, an arborist with the city of El Paso, said the unusual trees grow from the top, from one bud in the middle instead of the base of the tree.

“During the windy season, the dead fronds could damage that bud, which makes it prudent to trim off the dead fronds as soon as possible,” Pearson said. 

He said this is the time to watch for new growth, to see if the tree survived.

“I think the majority of them are coming back, some of them won’t, but as far as I can tell, they’re going to pull through,” he said. 

Rodriguez said that the waiting period will extend due to continued cooler temperatures through Friday.

“Even though we’re not in danger of what we would consider a ‘killing frost’ anymore, the low temperatures — especially at night-time — sets back a little clock within the plants’ system to delay sprouting fruits, flowers or leaves,” she said. 

Rodriguez said this winter storm, while sharing similarities to the deep freeze in February 2011, was at least a little better understood.

“In 2011, I don’t think many of us had a point of reference, and now we do because a lot of the same people have been in the gardening community since then,” she said. “I personally don’t think that this year’s winter storm was as devastating and large as the last time.”

Jeff Anderson, the extension agent at Doña Ana County and palm aficionado, said it was lucky the freeze happened in February, after temperatures were higher, and not in December. 

“If you kill that bud, if it freezes, the whole palm dies,” he said. 

He noted El Paso and Southern New Mexico were on the edge of this year’s cold front, and didn’t experience the full brunt of the drop, unlike the storm a decade ago. 

Arborists estimated the 2011 freeze would kill about 30% of palms. Anderson said 2011 brutally wiped out Aleppo pine trees.

“Almost all of them died,” he said. “Trees at least 80 feet tall and old trees with trucks three feet across, they completely died.” 

Anderson said some of the popular palms grown in El Paso and Las Cruces are two from the same family: the Mexican fan palm and the California fan palm. Both are susceptible to lower temperatures, with the Mexican fan palm being the more delicate of the two. 

He said California palm fronds don’t start freezing until 14 to 15 degrees. At 12 degrees, they may sustain heavier damage. Leaves on the Mexican fan palm freeze at 22 degrees, and the trees struggle to stay alive at 10 to 15 degree temperatures. 

“Mexican palms just don’t look very good, because every year they have freeze damage on their leaves,” Anderson said. “Even in a mild winter we usually hit about 18 degrees.”

This February, the low temperatures dipped into the teens over the three-day period, with highs in the 30s and 40s, while much of East Texas faced single-digit lows and daytime temperatures in the 20s. 

Anderson recommended replacing the tropical favorites with cold-hardy palms such as the miniature sable and needle palms, which he said have survived at temps in the teens. 

“There’s a lot of palms that are very cold hardy and there are pines that are tropical that can’t take any cold,” he said. “So it’s all in choosing the right plant material.”

He said to take care not to overwater, so the roots don’t rot, cautioning that it will take time.

“Follow the same routine as normal, and allow the plant to recover,” he said. “You just have to have patience.”

Cover photo: Mexican fan palms line a neighborhood in Central El Paso. Many of the trees have brown, droopy fronds due to freeze damage from the February cold front. (Danielle Prokop/El Paso Matters) 

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Danielle Prokop

Danielle Prokop is a climate change and environment reporter with El Paso Matters. She’s covered climate, local government and community at the Scottsbluff Star-Herald in Nebraska and the Santa Fe New Mexican. She can be reached at dprokop@elpasomatters.org.

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