The severity of winter damage is caused by a number of reasons, including the species involved, the location and conditions under which the tree is grown, and the exact timing of weather extremes during the dormant period. Contrary to popular belief, tree damage is not generally caused by an unusually cold winter. Low temperature injury is more often associated with extreme temperature fluctuation than with prolonged cold weather.
Acclimation to temps far below freezing results from exposure to slowly dipping temperatures and other factors. Trees that are dormant but not fully acclimated can be stressed or injured by a sudden, hard freeze. Rapid or extensive drops in temperature following mild autumn weather cause injury to woody trees. Extended periods of mild winter weather can de-acclimate trees, again making them vulnerable to injury from rapid temperature dips.
Some species or cultivars of trees and shrubs are injured if temperatures fall below a minimum tolerance level. Plants most likely to suffer winter injury are those that are marginally hardy for the area or those already weakened by previous stress. Species such as rhododendron, holly, and some magnolias may survive several mild winters in the Chicago region before a more typical winter causes injury. Flower buds are often the most susceptible. If plants with marginal hardiness are used, they should be planted in protected sites, such as courtyards or sheltered areas. In general, low temperatures are much less damaging than rapid and extensive variations in temperature.
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