Written by: Muhammad Adnan Shahid and Mujahid Hussain
What made this freeze event damaging?
The duration of temperatures below freezing determine the amount of damage to citrus plants. In January 2023 the temperature dropped down to 17 F and stayed at that temperature for a longer time than in recent years. Unlike 2022-23, during the winters of 2013-14, the recorded low temperature was 18 F for half an hour. Similarly, during 2014-15, the temperature touched 19 F and stayed only for 15 minutes. Except for these two winters, in the past 12 years, temperatures never dropped below 20 F. What made this freezing event of December 2022 devastating is the long freezing hours between 17-20 F for 11 hours and even more the temperature stayed for about an hour at 17 F (Fig. No.1).
Symptoms After Freeze
The duration of appearance of symptoms after freezing was different for different citrus varieties. Even within the same varieties, the age of the plant and the rootstock are also factors that determined the duration of the appearance of symptoms. For example, in the UF 950 rootstock evaluation block at North Florida Research and Education Center in Quincy, the symptoms appeared on young UF 950 plants on Sour orange rootstock after 24 hours and after three days the plant completely turned brown.
However, a few symptoms that appeared after about 24 hours of freezing were similar on all plants regardless of age, variety, and rootstock. These include the blackening of new leaves and branches, hardening and yellowing of leaves, and formation of greenish and brownish patches (Fig. No. 3). The leaves of old citrus trees also became curly, stunted, and yellow. During the freezing event, the fruits on the trees became hard due to the nucleation of water.
Low temperatures below freezing point cause the formation of ice crystals inside the plant, particularly in leaf tissue, causing a damaging effect of cell walls, and leaves appeared water-soaked upon thawing when temperature rose above the freezing point (Fig. 4).
One week after freezing, leaves started curling – turning brown and dry. At this stage, both leaves and fruits dropped very quickly, within a week giving plants a bush like appearance (Fig. No. 5 and 6). The fruits that remained on the tree developed multiple symptoms depending on the varieties. Fruits of some varieties formed micro-pits on the peel, however, the fruits of other varieties showed patterns of bright orange and yellow colors (Fig. No. 6a). The rotting leaves and fruits also attracted ladybug beetles, consequently this increased populations of other insects in freeze damaged citrus groves. You should keep in mind that the fruits that have been harvested after freezing need extra care as these fruits are more prone attacked by rotting fungi.
Bark splitting or cracking is a late symptom of freeze damage. Bark splitting or cracking will mostly be seen on stem and branches directly exposed to the sun. Bark splitting starts when sun light increases the temperature on the surface of the bark during daytime, but temperature drops after sun set resulting in unequal shrinkage and contraction of bark and inner plant tissues (Fig 8). Dropping of leaves and fruits is a good indication of plant survival, but if leaves dry while attached and don’t drop then it’s the sign of severe damage to internal tissue with a low chance of plant recovery (Fig 9)
Recovering Plant After Freeze Damage
The recovery of plants is entirely linked to the level of damage to the plant internal tissues during the freeze event. Freezing damage can exacerbate the plant’s health, thereby minimizing the recovery of the plant. However, plants can recover if the internal cells (cambium and xylem and phloem) are alive enough to regenerate the branches. After an extreme freeze event, like what happened in December 2022, some citrus plants will recover in spring due to the presence of living cells in the branches and stems, but if the internal transportation system is damaged, the plant again starts to die back for the next several months. You should not apply any recovery techniques immediately after the freeze event. The best strategy is to wait for the spring to see if plants are giving any indication of recovery and observe their growth at least till May-June.
It is true that after damage, plants require nutrients to regenerate and grow but the application of nutrients is critical as excessive fertilization can also increase the risk of damage. Do not apply any fertilizer until new growth starts in spring. Fertilizers should be applied frequently, but rates should be decided depending on the degree of damage. The plants that are severely damaged will not be able to produce fruits in the next season therefore, the rate of fertilizer should be lowered to promote a slow recovery, as the damaged plants will not be able to uptake all applied nutrients due to slow water flow caused by minimum transpiration rate in the absence of leaves. In this case, any excessive application of fertilizer can cause toxic effects that can further halt the recovery of plants. The application of micronutrients is also important for the recovery of plants.
Care should be taken to protect the plants from pathogens, insects, and weeds to enhance recovery. Citrus plants regenerate in the spring and aphids and whiteflies like to attack the young leaves, branches, and shoots. Therefore, an effective plant protection plan should be devised that includes the application of insecticides and fungicides. In general, one to two applications of fungicide should be planned along with nutritional spray to prevent infection on new growth. Removal of all fruit from freeze damaged trees is also important for quick recovery (Fig 10)
Pruning should be avoided because it is not clear how much damage has been done to the plant. Pruning should be delayed until spring or summer. Ideally, pruning should be done on living wood to make sure that all the damaged parts have been removed. If the citrus tree has been damaged below the rootstock/scion union, it is better to re-graft the new scion on the rootstock instead of pruning. Pruning of trees that have been damaged below the scion union will result in the generation of rootstock. Therefore, re-grafting the plant or replanting is the best option. The Fruit Physiology Lab at NFREC-Quincy is developing tissue imaging techniques for quick estimation of percentage of tissue damage in freeze affected citrus tree shoots and roots.
Irrigation after freeze damage should be reduced. Damaged plants do not uptake as much water as healthy plants, therefore, excessive water in roots can cause the nutrients to move away from the plants and even can cause suffocation for young emerging roots. It is not recommended to completely cut off the water supply, because this can further damage the plants.
The Fruit Physiology Lab at NFREC-Quincy is developing tissue imaging techniques for quick estimation of percentage of tissue damage in freeze affected citrus tree shoots and roots. A series of preliminary studies on the use of growth hormones (brassinosteriods, abscisic acid and jasmonic acid) and nutrients (silicon, K and Zn) to improve the cold hardiness is in progress. Preliminary data indicates that the use of growth hormones and plant beneficial nutrients has the potential to reduce freeze damage (Fig 12), but more detailed research and validation in large scale field trials is required. Postdocs and graduate students in The Fruit Physiology Lab at NFREC-Quincy are fully engaged with different research projects to improve the cold hardiness in citrus by hormonal and nutritional therapies. Recently, the lab got a funding to study new scion and rootstock combinations with high cold tolerance.
Florida has faced record freezing this winter season with recent events that occurred in the last week of December 2022 causing severe damage to citrus trees in North Florida. Citrus growers in South Florida are already fighting with the HLB disease and freeze damage in the North has added to the damage to the citrus industry in Florida. Careful planning and proper care can help damaged citrus trees to recover and start fruiting again. Trees with little damage to their woody parts will recover soon and start fruiting in the next season. However, the trees with more damage to their woody parts will take two or more years to recover enough to start fruiting. Therefore, proper assessment of the damage is important and recovery strategies should be devised according to the degree of damage. Recent freeze events gave us a big message that microsprinklers are not enough freeze protection for established trees. There is also a need to identify growth hormones, nutrients, or combinations of which can improve the cold hardiness of upper plant parts. In addition, exact estimation of recent freeze damage won’t be accurate until April-June.
The weather is the most important factor determining where certain fruits can be successfully grown. Terms such as chilling requirement and cold hardiness play a major role in both species and variety selection.
Most fruits which grow in the Panhandle are deciduous, meaning that during the winter, they lose their leaves and go through a semi to full dormancy period. This period is a much needed rest and reset for the plant. The cool season actually helps the plant to rebound for another fruiting season and affects how well the plant will yield fruit. This is where the term “chilling hours” comes into play.
Temperatures below 45 degrees Fahrenheit are considered “chilling”. The number of hours below 45 degrees accumulated throughout the winter determines the total amount of chilling hours. Different species of citrus and dooryard fruit, along with different cultivars of these plants differ in the amount of chilling hours need for that all important rest & reset period. Satsuma is a popular fruit trees in our area, as it is by far the most cold hardy citrus. Evidence suggests that the satsuma can survive a temperature as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit.
Figure 1. Mature satsumas ready for harvest.
Credit. Pete Anderson. UF/IFAS Extension.
What happens if the plant doesn’t receive the needed amount of chilling hours? Plant hormones can be disrupted, and both leafing and blooming could be light and come outside of the normal range of the season. So, where do we stand in the Panhandle for overall chilling hours? Typically, we see approximately 500 hours chilling hours. Therefore, its best to plant citrus and dooryard fruit that have the characteristic of needing 500 or less hours for chilling. Please see this informative document on citrus and dooryard fruit varieties: https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/MG248
Now, on to the term cold hardiness. By definition, this is the plants ability to withstand cool season temperatures without injury. Most tropical fruits cannot tolerate our Panhandle temperatures. Those of us that cut back banana trees every year know this all too well. To check your plant hardiness zone, please see the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/
Before you plant a fruit tree, make sure you understand about its cold hardiness and whether or not it has a chilling requirement. This will both save you money and a headache, in the end. If you’re in doubt about a particular variety, contact your local extension office.
There are important landscape lessons to learn from recent, early and widespread freezes.
First, know the average climate for the region you live in here in Florida. The work has already been done for you with the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map. Here is a link for the map: https://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov. Find your zone on the map. Note that Northwest Florida includes zones 8a, 8b and 9a.
The newest map, with interactive features, was updated in 2012.
This map is based on the average annual minimum winter temperature and is divided into 10°F zones. It can help you determine which plants are most likely to thrive in your zone. There are areas bordering Alabama, located in the extreme northern portions of Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa, Walton and Holmes Counties, that are in Zone 8a, with an average annual extreme minimum temperature of 10 to 15 degrees F. Most of these counties fall within zone 8b, with an average annual extreme minimum temperature of 15 to 20 degrees F. The extreme southern portions of these same counties (bordering the Gulf) are in Zone 9a with an average annual extreme minimum temperature of 20 to 25 degrees F. As you go south in Florida, you move into Zones 9b, 10a, 10b, and 11a. Zone 10b has an average annual extreme minimum temperature of 35 to 40 degrees F. Zone 11a; which includes a small portion of West Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, most of Miami and all of the Florida Keys; has an average annual extreme minimum temperature of 40 to 45 degrees F.
It seems that some people move to extreme north Florida and think they are in extreme south Florida. They move barely below Alabama or Georgia and want to plant the palms, citrus and tropical plants that thrive in extreme south Florida. If you live in Zone 9a, perhaps you might get by with growing a few plants that are well suited for 9b. But it is wise to mostly grow plants that are known to flourish in the Plant Hardiness Zone where you live.
Secondly, follow principle one, which is Right Plant, Right Place, as explained in the UF/IFAS Extension Florida-Friendly Landscape™ (FFL) Program. Following this principle results in developing a healthy, low-maintenance landscape by using Florida-Friendly plants that match your site’s soil, light, water and climatic conditions and that require limited supplemental irrigation, potentially less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.
More information on the FFL Program is available through this UF/IFAS Extension link (https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu) or from the Extension Office in your County.
Using these tools may be a great goal for 2023 as we replace cold-injured plants.
We gardeners in the Panhandle have been spoiled by several very mild winters recently. However, it appears that this pattern will change, at least for a few days, beginning Thursday night. While forecasts vary depending upon your preferred media outlet, all agree that Calhoun County is going to experience several freezing nights (temperatures in the low 20’s to high teens for hours at a time). That’s plenty cold to kill many cold-sensitive plants, so here are a few tips to keep your treasured plants alive until warmer conditions arrive next week.
Bring cold-sensitive potted plants inside. You can’t dig up your citrus trees and bring them in the living room but bringing cold-sensitive potted plants inside for a couple of nights is a fail-proof freeze protection method.
Water outside plants the day before extreme cold hits. It’s natural, even good, for many tender plants (perennials, bulbs, etc.) to “die” back in cold weather. This encourages dormancy and reduces pest/disease populations. However, this week could get cold enough to kill “tops” of sensitive plants AND freeze root systems. To help prevent this, water the day before a freeze as moist soil loses heat less rapidly than dry. A few degrees can make all the difference!
Apply mulch around the base of plants. Mulch helps insulate the soil and reduces radiant heat losses. For plants with a graft – like most citrus, pile mulch up around the grafted area. If the top of the plant dies back, at least it will be able to recover from above the graft (the desirable part of a grafted plant).
Cover citrus and other plants that recover slowly from cold damage. Draping a non-plastic cloth or blanket mostly helps keep frost off and freezing wind off plants but can also insulate from freezing temperatures if it covers the entire plant to the ground. It’s better than nothing.
Build a “greenhouse” around plants. You can create a simple greenhouse structure of wooden stakes, pipe, or posts and cover with plastic (making sure the plastic doesn’t touch leaf or stem tissue). Be sure to get this structure up while the sun is still shining before the freeze event to capture as much solar heat as possible. For even better results, install a lightbulb, non-LED Christmas lights, or some other heat source inside the plastic structure.
Last ditch method –turn on the sprinkler. Continuouslyrunning a sprinkler over sensitive plants can help protect them. By running water, you “insulate” the plant to the water’s temperature (above 32 F). This method requires that the sprinkler begin running before the thermometer drops below 32 degrees and must continue uninterrupted until after the freeze event is over. If you stop before the freeze is over, the water left on the plant will freeze to whatever temperature the air is, injuring or killing the plant.
We don’t have many freeze events so take a little time this week to bring sensitive plants indoors and implement one or more of the above precautionary measures in your landscape! Don’t let a few hours of very cold weather set your plants back years! For more information about cold protection in the lawn and garden, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension Office. Stay warm and Merry Christmas!
The flower of the Christmas season is the poinsettia, a tropical plant from Mexico that changes its leaf color when the daylength changes. Poinsettias were originally noticed for their bright red color and are now available in many colors, shapes and sizes, thanks to decades of work by plant breeders. As much as we love them, caring for poinsettias during and after the holiday can be a challenge. Here are a few tips to extend the bloom for a longer period and encourage it to grow for the months to come!
Provide plenty of sunlight. A sunny window facing south is ideal. Be careful to not let the leaves touch the glass. Keep temperatures around 55-60F at night and 65-70F during the day.
Keep soil slightly moist on the surface. Wait until the surface feels dry before watering, then add just enough to soak in. If water collects below the pot, pour it out. Those decorative wrappers make it hard to tell, so be sure to check. However, don’t wait for wilting before watering as that is too dry. Both overwatering and underwatering can lead to wilting and excessive leaf drop. Check the soil each day.
Don’t fertilize while “blooming”. While the colored parts of poinsettias are actually modified leaves called bracts and the true flowers are the tiny yellow centers, we often refer to the entire non-green portion as a bloom. The plant can maintain its nutritional needs throughout the flowering time without additional fertilizer.
In the spring, cut the plant back, fertilize and move outside. Remember, poinsettias require temperatures to always stay above 60F. If we receive any cool nights, bring it in for the night. Let the rootball become quite dry throughout April. You may have to move it under a cover if the April showers are occurring every few days.
If you want to try your luck at re-blooming, re-pot it in a slightly larger container and cut it back to about 4” high in mid-May. Keep it in nearly full sun. A little shading in the heat of the day is helpful. Water consistently and fertilize every two weeks with a water-soluble, complete fertilizer. As it grows, you will need to pinch the plant back every six weeks or so until October, I usually remove about half of the stem that has grown out. To get coloration in time for Christmas, find something dark to cover the plant or move it to a dark location each day. The poinsettia must be in complete darkness from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. until the leaves start to turn color, usually 10 weeks. That means moving or covering and uncovering at the same time every day. Any deviation will delay the color change. Once you see a complete set of leaves coloring, the plant can be exposed to regular daylengths. If this sounds like too much work, spent poinsettias do make good compost and garden centers will be happy to sell you a new one!
Remember, poinsettia sap does contain a latex-like chemical that can cause allergic reactions. Small animals, young children, and adults with allergies should not handle poinsettias. If eaten, get medical attention immediately.
For being in a place known as the Sunshine State, the Panhandle has been mighty cold and dreary to start 2022! With all the recent bitterly cold weather that’s rolled through our neck of the woods over the last month or so, you may be asking yourself “Is this just a typical Panhandle winter or has it been colder than normal and what is the impact of freezing weather on my fruit trees?” The answer might surprise you!
The easiest way to measure cold and its impact on plants is through a unit of measurement known as a “chill hour”. In its simplest iteration, a chill hour is an hour of time during which the thermometer dips below 45 degrees F. These “chilling hours” are vital to agriculture and our native ecosystems because many plants, especially those that produce fruit like pears, blueberries, peaches, and even citrus, require a certain amount of chill to enter dormancy and develop flower buds for the following spring. All fruit trees have a minimum chilling requirement to initiate flowering depending on variety and too few chilling hours equals poor to no fruit the following year. Too little cold can be just as harmful as too much!
Blueberry beginning to flower after receiving adequate chill hours. Photo courtesy of Daniel Leonard.
Now that we know about chilling hours, the question remains, is this a normal winter or has it been colder than normal? The answer is neither. Based on historical average data from the UF/IFAS weather station in Marianna (a central location in the Panhandle and a good proxy for your local temperatures), as cold as we’ve been in January and early February, we’re still lagging the historical average with respect to chilling hours, and therefore to total cold temperatures. As of February 6th, 512 chill hours had been recorded this winter. This seems like a lot until you check and see that we had 554 chill hours on the same day last year and the historic average is more than 750! Though January and February have indeed been cold this year, the chill hour graph indicates that over the last few years it’s taken longer into the calendar to achieve our first chill hour and that cold weather isn’t pushing as far into spring as it historically has.
There are many potential explanations for the warming trend in the Panhandle but regardless of your preferred theory, backyard fruit growers need to adapt to deal with the change in chill. The primary way to combat fewer chill hours is to evaluate your current fruiting plants and think about replacing high-chill varieties that no longer produce well with lower-chill varieties. If you know the variety you have, look up the number of chill hours that variety requires. If it’s an older variety that requires near the historical chill average or more, you may consider replacing it with a newer variety that requires fewer chilling hours. For example, the popular old blueberry variety ‘TifBlue’ requires 600-700 chilling hours. For most of the previous decade, we have either just barely or not reached that many chill hours, leading to a low fruit set. Replacing ‘TifBlue’ with a newer, lower chill variety like ‘Powderblue’ will probably increase your blueberry production. If you don’t know what variety of fruit tree or shrub you have, just observe the flowering period over the next spring or two. If it doesn’t flower at all or flowers sporadically and you don’t make a good fruit yield, a high chill requirement very likely could be to blame and replacing it could enhance production!
Though we’ve had an intensely cold start to 2022, if current trends continue, this wintry weather will most likely play out before we reach historic averages. That doesn’t mean you can’t grow plenty of backyard fruit, it just requires adapting to the times with lower chill varieties! To keep up with chill hour accumulation, visit http://agroclimate.org/tools/chill-hours-calculator and if you have any questions about fruiting plant variety selection, chilling hours and their effect on plants, or any other horticultural topic, contact your local UF/IFAS County Extension office! Stay warm and happy gardening!