What To Do When Trees Are Coated in Ice

Icicles may look charming and decorative hanging from a roof edge, but icicles and ice layers covering your trees and shrubs can be destructive and dangerous. So what should you do with an ice-coated tree or shrub? Will the layer of ice harm the plant, or can it recover? Are there any things you should not do when a tree is covered in ice?

In this article, we answer those questions and more so you’ll know exactly how to handle an ice event.

ice covers every inch of a tree or shrub, forming white icicles

Ice can damage your trees and shrubs


First, you’ll want to identify the damage. Stay clear of the heavy ice load on your trees; check them from a safe distance. Ice is unpredictable and will fall without warning, so avoid standing under or near any when checking your trees.

Double-check to see if:

  • The tree is near to or touching a power line. Electricity will travel through ice, so keep back! Call your utility company and alert them if your tree is in contact with electrical lines.
  • Your driveway or public sidewalks are blocked by fallen limbs. If so, keep on keeping back. You won’t want to cut these limbs yourself. Ice is dangerous, especially if you’re using a power tool. Branch movement while cutting, as well as vibrations from a chainsaw, can cause limbs to slip and ice to fall. You too can slip on an icy surface.

Call your city’s public works department if a street tree has fallen or if branches are blocking a road or sidewalk. If ice and fallen limbs are on your property, call the experienced arborists at Rayzor’s Edge Tree Service to assess and remove the damage.


A group of smaller trees under a powerline is covered with ice or frost

Most trees will recover on their own – you just have to wait

You can clear away ice and broken branches yourself from smaller trees and shrubs that you can easily reach from the ground. Wear a hardhat if you have one and prune out damaged branches with loppers or hand pruners, moving them away from walkways and entrances.

Do not walk underneath high, ice-loaded branches, even in a hardhat. It’s better to steer clear of dangerous, overhead ice and let it melt naturally.

Wait a While – Your Trees May Recover On Their Own

Chances are that after a storm has passed, ice and snow will just melt and fall off your trees and shrubs. Healthy tree limbs are remarkably flexible, and many of them will bounce back to their normal positions after being bent beneath a load of ice.

Some branches won’t recover, though, and will need to be pruned.

Any damaged or broken tree branches that do not block or pose a hazard to structures, cars, or pedestrians may be left in place until the storm is past and they can be safely cut.

You’ll want an arborist to correct any significant damage to your trees, such as split and broken limbs, a downed tree, or a messy, jagged wound. Take care of tree emergencies right away, but leave this sort of corrective pruning for later, when the weather is clear and the most destructive storms have passed.

DON’T Make the Situation Worse

  • Don’t shake branches to release ice and snow loads. Although naturally flexible, branches under heavy loads can fail when it’s very cold and there’s a lot of weight on them. Since you can’t predict what it might do, leave the ice where it is.
  • Don’t use a broom or rake to whack at ice and snow to get it to fall off. Again, heavy, unpredictable ice loads plus vulnerable tree limbs equal danger to both you and your trees.
  • Don’t spray your tree and shrub limbs with water to wash the snow off. You will just make more ice in more places.
  • Don’t salt your plants to melt ice or clear an area. Road salt and de-icing products are fatal to tree and shrub tissue, and once the ice has melted, the salty, chemical slush will soak into the soil where it will damage all the roots it comes into contact with.


Snow weighs down the branches of evergreen trees, causing them to bow

Heavy snow and ice can weigh down the branches of evergreen trees and shrubs, causing them to bow and sometimes break

It’s better to be a deciduous tree in winter, as bare branches can shed snow loads much more easily than evergreens can. And it’s better to be a well-pruned tree with a balanced branch structure and crown, so that the weight of snow and ice can be evenly distributed.

But there are several tree characteristics that increase susceptibility to damage from ice loads.

Soft-wooded trees are usually also fast-growing, and their weaker wood can be severely damaged by winter ice storms. Willows, poplars, birches, ornamental pears, and elms are easily damaged because of both their wood structure and their natural growth and branching patterns. Weeping, stiffly upright, small, or crowded branches are less likely to shed snow and ice, and softer, weaker wood is more likely to crack and give way.

Evergreen trees and shrubs like arborvitae and juniper can hold a lot of snow and ice among their sprays of foliage, and if overwhelmed by the load they can crack apart. Broadleaf deciduous trees hit by early storms before they have shed their leaves can suffer similarly grave damage.

HOW to Prevent Ice Damage to Trees

Well-pruned trees and shrubs have an immediate advantage because their branches are well-distributed and their crowns are balanced. Proper pruning in late winter or early spring extends its benefits into the next winter by reducing the likelihood of storm damage. Remember, fall pruning is still a no-no.

close-up of branches coated in ice

Well-pruned trees tend to fare better in ice storms than neglected trees

However, even a well-pruned tree can still be damaged. If it is, cabling and/or bracing are the usual next step. These methods will help hold branches in place and help to keep them from breaking, but damage above the cabled areas is still possible. Multi-trunk trees and trees with wide branch crotches are subject to winter ice damage just because of their spreading forms.

All trees have a lifespan, and some older, fragile, or damaged trees won’t be able to withstand serious ice damage. In situations like these, removing a tree before it fails may be a better idea than leaving it. It’s a hard decision, but might be lessened if your tree can have a second life as firewood in your fireplace.

Small trees and shrubs are candidates for protective winter wrapping and branch tying. Wrapping or tying together branches can reduce the possibility of ice damage because there are no branches open or exposed, and any snow loads atop small wrapped shrubs can be brushed off.


Regular care and maintenance of your trees is the best prevention plan against winter ice damage. When damage does occur, follow safe practices and don’t put yourself in danger.

If you can, let the ice melt or fall away on its own and allow your trees to recover naturally. If you can’t wait, or if you can see damaged or broken branches weighed down with ice, you’ll want a Certified Arborist to properly assess the situation and help fix the problem.

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