MDC urges proper pruning to help storm-damaged trees

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — The recent storm that swept through Columbia and the surrounding area left many trees in need of a little after-storm care. Trees that lost limbs may threaten the safety of homeowners, are at risk for decline, or even death.

The Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) has advice about how to determine which trees are salvageable and how to nurse them back to health.

According to MDC Forestry Regional Supervisor Susan Troxel-DeWitt, the amount of damage a tree can survive depends on the tree.

"Long-lived hardwood trees, such as oaks, sugar maples and hickories, might have a future if they still have at least half their branches and were in good health before the damage occurred," Troxel-DeWitt says. "But soft-wooded species such as silver maples, poplars, Bradford pears and Siberian elms, are prone to breakage, so they are harder to salvage if they lose more than a few limbs. Those species are short-lived and grow fast, so it usually makes sense to replace them."

Professional foresters and certified arborists can provide advice about whether a particular tree is worth trying to save. They also have the equipment needed to prune large trees safely.

However, if only a few low limbs are damaged, homeowners may be able to remove them. According to Troxel-DeWitt, it is important to remove hanging limbs to eliminate safety hazards to people.

"Pruning can increase trees' survival prospects if done properly," Troxel-DeWitt says. "The key is removing limbs to avoid further damage and promote quick healing."

The most common pruning problem is bark tears. This occurs when a branch is cut on its upper surface and breaks before the saw cuts all the way through. As the limb falls, it pulls downward on the remaining bark, tearing the bark below the branch.

This can be avoided by making three cuts. Make the first a few inches into the damaged branch's bottom surface a foot or two from its junction with the main branch. This stops bark tearing.

Make the second cut a foot or so above the first one, severing most of the limb and thereby taking its weight off the remaining stump. The final cut is just above the raised ridge of bark known as the collar. This cut should leave the bark collar intact. This collar eventually will produce bark to cover the wound. The cut should be a little closer to the collar on the upper side than on the bottom.

Bark tears can also occur when wind breaks limbs near their bases. These tears should be cleaned up to reduce the chance of disease or pest infestation.

The idea is to remove loose bark and even up jagged edges of tears where disease fungus or insects can hide. Use a chisel or sharp knife to remove bark that is not firmly attached to the tree without enlarging the exposed area any more than necessary.

Finally, do not paint the exposed surface of bark tears or pruning wounds. This actually hampers healing.

"Trees can be pretty resilient," Troxel-DeWitt says. "With careful pruning and some tender loving care, a tree may survive, and eventually thrive, from this storm."

For more information about how to properly treat your tree after storm or basic pruning guidelines, visit