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Winter Storm Recovery: South Texas Palms Show Heavy Damage From Extreme Cold Temperatures

Sabal Palm showing damage
Jack Morgan
Sabal Palm showing damage

The recent winter storm did not simply damage infrastructure and homes. It damaged plant life too. San Antonians with palms in their yards have probably noticed that they're not looking good.

“It was an extreme cold event, a true blue norther and [we] saw temperatures and duration of low temperatures that we hadn't seen in a number of years,” said Andrew Labay, the San Antonio Botanical Garden's director of horticulture. The extreme cold also damaged the Garden's palms.

There are 2,600 species of palm, but only a fraction of that number can take the normal low temperatures in San Antonio.

Labay explained that palms are tough, but the storm pushed the plants to their limits.

Sago palm, whose leaves are normally a dark green
Jack Morgan
Sago palm, whose leaves are normally a dark green

“When you start getting into the low 20s, the leaves become damaged," he explained. "But when you get into the teens, that really gets down to their their critical low temperatures. And, of course, we went down to 10.”

But there may be some good news for local palms. It’s not that uncommon for them to lose their fronds in severe winters and then come out fresh in the spring.

Labay said that owners can monitor a palm's health at a particular spot.

“If you can look down above from the from a bird's eye view, you'll see right there in the center portion at the top where there's an area where the leaves emerge from.” he said.

Palm fronds unfold in the spring from that center trunk at the top of the palm.

The top center portion of a Sago palm, where the new growth will emerge, if it's still living
Jack Morgan
The top center portion of a Sago palm, where the new growth will emerge, if it's still living

“You can also kind of inspect that central portion. And if it's relatively firm still, that's a good sign. If it's mushy and decaying, that's obviously a bad sign,” he said.

That mushiness would mean the palm really is dead and won't come back.

For now, he said, owners will have to wait. “Giving it some time and [let] the spring come in and the heat come in and see if it'll reemerge,” he said.

Horticulturist David Rodriguez of the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service had similar advice for owners of shrubs and other plants impacted by the cold weather.

He counseled gardeners to not pull up or cut down dead-looking plants just yet. Wait a couple of weeks in case there's one more freeze this season and then watch for any new growth.

If a plant still looks dead, Rodriguez said, prune it from the top down with sharp shears.

"Let's cut everything back to the green wood" even if it's down to the ground level, he advised.

Pull any mulch away to allow the sun to bring out growth at the base. If there isn't any new growth, he said, then replace the plant.

Brian Kirkpatrick contributed to this report.

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Jack Morgan can be reached at jack@tpr.org and on Twitter at @JackMorganii