Snow Damage to Trees

It's often best to wait before pruning branches

By: Sandy Feather ©2010
Penn State Extension

Q. Last weekend’s heavy snowfall has most of my trees and shrubs absolutely crushed! Should I cut the bent branches off? My ornamental pear lost a big branch. Do you think it can be saved, or will it have to be removed?

A. My best recommendation is to wait until the snow melts - even a bit longer - before you grab the chainsaw or pruners. Many trees and shrubs look downright pitiful now. I have an informal (unsheared) hedge of yews that looks like someone dumped a tri-axle full of snow on them. They are normally eight to ten feet tall – right now they are about half that size! If anything, take a broom and GENTLY try to brush the accumulated snow and ice off of the plants.

Don’t worry if you cannot remove all of it; just try to get the worst of it off. Do not grab a shovel; you could wind up causing more damage than the snow did.

Birch bent over by heavy snow
Clump birches, like the one above, usually
straighten up once Spring weather arrives.

Cherry tree with torn bark
Large areas of torn bark, like you see on this Cherry
tree, are usually a sign the tree needs to be removed.

Once the snow melts off, you need to give them some time before pruning. Because it has been so cold, those branches are “frozen” in place. Give them a chance to thaw out and see if they regain their normal shape. Many of them will surprise you and spring back to normal with no permanent damage. It wouldn’t hurt to wait until early-mid March when temperatures are more comfortable for you to work. Once you can more clearly assess any real damage, then you can prune broken branches back to their point of origin on a main branch, or even back to the ground.


As for your ornamental pear tree, it depends on how much damage occurred when the large branch came down. If the bark on the trunk of the tree was badly torn when the branch fell, it may be best to remove it. You should hire a professional tree service to care for any tree over 30 feet tall that has storm damage. They have the training and equipment to safely deal with larger trees and assess the soundness of trees damaged by the storm.

Ornamental pear destroyed by heavy snow
Worst case scenario for an ornamental
Pear with all the major braches broken.

Large Maple braches splintered by heavy snows
Large limbs high in a tree and out of reach
are best left for the professionals.

The damage to your ornamental pear points out the main problem with these otherwise useful trees: they have a very upright growth habit with steep crotch angles where branches attach to the trunk. This is a much weaker attachment than branches with a more horizontal attachment, and they are commonly damaged during storms, or by snow and ice.


Another problem is that they have been over-planted in many neighborhoods and on commercial properties. This lack of diversity could be a problem if an insect or disease should attack ornamental pears, much like the devastation wrought by Dutch elm disease on the American elm or the current scourge of emerald ash borer on native species of ash.

Replanting with snow damage in mind

If you are advised to remove this tree, consider replacing it with a different species, both to increase diversity and to avoid the heartbreak of heaving the tree destroyed in a storm.

Some options include:

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.)

Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana)

Corneliancherry dogwood (Cornus mas)

‘Winter King’ hawthorn (Crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’)

Or a disease-resistant crabapple:
(Malus spp.) such as ‘Adams, ‘David,’ ‘Dolgo’ or ‘Jewelberry’


Flowering crabapple photos

Thundercloud Plum storm damage

Trimming Weeping Cherry Trees


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