April 05, 2020

Gardeners mourn trees lost to ice

For those living outside of the areas of Maine hit by “The Great Ice Storm of ’98,” it is hard to find words that describe the extent of the damage done. And although news coverage has given a fairly vivid picture, it is difficult to convey through the media the emotional ramifications.

Although it appears that most trees have some damage, yard trees seem the hardest hit. Most of these specimens grow in full sun, develop lush, dense growth habits, and are plentiful with buds and branches. While this is most often considered an asset — ensuring the tree many members with which to gain resources — it proved this time to be a detriment.

If you didn’t see it with your own eyes, it would be hard to believe just how merciless Mother Nature was during this storm, coating each protrusion on a branch — each bud, each node, each thorn and fruit — with a half-inch or more of ice. Although some winter ice damage is to be expected, trees in my area were topped, with mature maples and pines losing 15 or 20 feet of their height in a single break. This damage was so significant that in the wake of the storm, views that haven’t been seen for 20 years now are exposed on the horizon.

For those of us who enjoy yardwork and gardening, this storm has cast a bit of gloom over the pending gardening season. The yard is littered with a layer of maple, ash and pine limbs, plenty sizable enough to be next year’s firewood. Looking a bit deeper into the woods, it will take years to clean up the debris the storm has caused.

Torn by the relentless weight of the ice, yard trees were left with the worst of all possible wounds: branches broken off displaying crude tears, taking with them huge lengths of bark. So many trees are left topless, with only jagged cream-colored tissue exposed at their tops, an open invitation to disease and rot.

While from a gardener’s or homeowner’s perspective the effects of the ice storm are devastating, from nature’s perspective, in the long run the storm will have a cleansing effect. Downed branches may render some trees inviable, but for wildlife, piles of branches on the forest floor may mean a new opportunity for habitat. For deer that were hard-pressed to find forage under an impenetrable layer of ice, fallen branches and bent birch trees laden with nutritious buds are a source of fodder.

Some trees have received detrimental blows, but even so, ecologically speaking, they’re not in such bad shape. The very reproductive strategy of many trees protects them. Most trees produce abundant seed which falls in the area immediately under their canopy. This strategy has at least two benefits. First, if a tree is able to achieve maturity under the environmental conditions present at the site, an offspring will likely be able to do so as well. Second, after reaching reproductive maturity and producing offspring, a dying or fallen tree opens the canopy of the forest, allowing light and water to reach the emerging saplings below. To some extent, this will be one result of the damage incurred to tree canopies during the storm.

Although the effects of the storm will cause both dips and surges in various populations, the possibility of a devastating blow to all populations, the danger of nature’s ultimate cleansing — a forest fire — will be high once the fallen branches and weakened trees dry out after a droughty summer.

But forest trees and yard trees are, to many homeowners at least, birds of two different feathers. Aside from having great function in the landscape — providing background, scale and shade — many of our yard trees hold sentimental value. The damage caused during the storm is heart-wrenching in many cases, as we witness irreparable damage to some of our most dear trees.

Residents caught in an area hard-hit by the ice storm are left with the plaguing question of where to begin cleaning up.

Tree care is hard physical work that not all people can undertake. Considering the ice and the January cold, it’s not recommended that you do any pruning or cutting on mature trees this time of year. Picking up fallen debris, chipping branches and gleaning wood suitable for firewood is about all we can do to clean up the yard in the immediate future.

For some trees, it is evident that the only option is removal altogether. For others, we’ll have to reserve judgment until the trees have an opportunity to revive themselves. This process will take several years of watching and selectively pruning. Come spring, the best we can do is properly prune the branches that were snapped off by making a clean cut at the branch collar — the calloused area where branch joins trunk.

Overall, some tree professionals say that a tree can lose up to one-third of its branches and still rejuvenate. If this is the general rule, many of our yard trees are as good as gone. A mature white ash in my back yard was left with nothing but four crude stubs where main branches used to be and two main branches below. The tree has lost easily 80 percent of its leaf-bearing branches, a blow from which it is probably too hard for a mature tree to recover.

As I look out the window to the yard, and beyond to the forest line that edges our hayfield, I am appalled at the damage. In the foreground, the lilacs and honeysuckle lie prostrate with a few defiant stems jutting up from the ground. Beyond them, the birches are bent, and to date, have no reprieve from the weight of the ice. To the forest extending to the horizon, the pines, which once looked mighty and provided so many in our state with a symbol of strength and pride, look sallow after being so badly beaten.

As I contemplate this new and wretched landscpe, the same nature that caused this destruction germinates within me a sapling of hope that one day the beauty of the world around me will return.

Diana George Chapin is the NEWS garden columnist. Send horticulture questions to Gardening Questions, c/o Maine Weekend, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. Selected questions will be answered in future columns. Include name, address and telephone number.

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