What does frost do to bonsai trees?

Living in London means that even though spring has blossomed forth, there is still a chance of frost all the way through to the end of May. And many of us will have learned the hard way that frost and/or sub-zero temperatures can seriously damage our trees.

One of the key risks of frost and extreme cold is the problem of ice. Ice formation pulls water from plant cells, causing dehydration, which can be just as lethal as dehydration from underwatering.ref Ice masses which form and thaw can deform and damage cell membranes, as well as buds and other plant organs, and ice in trees’ xylem vessels can cause embolisms (air bubbles) to form, cutting off the water flow above the bubble.

Another problem is that low temperatures make photosynthesis dangerous due to an excess of energy which ends up as damaging reactive oxygen species (“ROS”). This is why some trees convert green chloroplasts to bronze chromoplasts in cold weather – read more here, and others shed their leaves altogether to eliminate the problem.

Plants which are ‘hardy’ or ‘frost-hardy’ have mechanisms to resist the effect of ice – either by ‘avoidance’ such as supercooling (lowering a liquid to below freezing point without freezing), or ‘tolerance’ – using biochemical changes and physical adaptations allowing the tolerance of ice in their tissues.ref Some pines have evolved specific mesophyll cells which allow the ice into the intracellular spaces without deforming the key structures within the needles – a physical adaptation. Oaks and ring porous trees regrow their conducting xylem every year, since embolisms during winter make last seasons’ xylem ineffective.

Crucially, since many cold-hardiness mechanisms rely on biochemical changes within the plant, they require time, so that the relevant proteins, enzymes and other metabolites can be synthesised in sufficient quantities to have the desired effect in plant cells. This process is called ‘cold acclimation’. Smith et al (2010) give the example of rye. 50% of non-acclimated rye plants will die at -6oC, but after spending 2 days at 4oC, they can go down to -21oC before 50% of plants will die. The cold acclimation process is what’s known as an ‘epigenetic’ process – where environmental triggers such as shortening days and reducing temperatures turn on genes – in this case known as COR (cold-regulated genes).ref These then produce the proteins which are used to create the cold-hardy biochemical changes.

There is an equal and opposite process known as cold deacclimation. Smith et al (2010) say that above a temperature of 10oC cold hardiness is rapidly lost, which is why a spring frost at the end of May can be so damaging.

To complicate matters, shoot hardiness is not the same thing as root hardiness.ref Studies have shown that roots are less hardy than shoots, even when exposed to identical temperature acclimation treatments.ref For example, the stems of Pyracantha are hardy to -25.6oC, whereas mature roots are hardy to -18.8oC and young roots are hardy to -6.1oC.ref This is an important insight for bonsai because the scale of our trees and the fact they are suspended in pots means their young roots are particularly vulnerable. A symptom of winter damage to young roots is when a tree flushes later than normal, and has retarded growth during the season.ref It may not kill the tree, but it will certainly give it a handicap for the next season.

So what does it all mean for bonsai?

For me the main risk boils down to root damage. Those lovely fine roots we work hard to encourage during the growing season are more vulnerable to frost than any other part of the tree, and unfortunately due to the size, shape and positioning of most bonsai pots, they are very exposed to cold temperatures. In one study it was found that container-grown trees were subjected to temperatures down to -15oC when the night-time temperature reached -30oC, whereas the soil only went down to -6oC.ref And since surfaces cool faster than air when it’s cold, resting up against a cold pot surface is the last place a young root wants to be! When the temperature gets really cold, mature roots can be damaged as well, which could be fatal to the tree.

Sure – leaves can be damaged by frost as well – mainly when deciduous trees have leafed out expecting above-zero temperatures and then a frost comes along. Most will deal with this and should regrow their leaves – there will be an energy penalty which will reduce the overall energy they have to devote to the growing season, and they won’t look great in the meantime, but it shouldn’t be fatal if the stems and roots are still healthy. But certainly to keep your trees looking and growing their best, you want to avoid deciduous trees leaves being exposed to frost if at all possible (see below for some strategies).

To be able to manage and prevent frost damage, we need to know when a frost will happen. This starts with monitoring the temperature during winter. Importantly, when you hear or see a temperature forecast for a location, it is a forecast for the air temperature. The temperature of the ground is often several degrees lower. The UK Met Office says “As a general rule of thumb, if the air temperature is forecast to fall between 0 °C and 4 °C on a night with little or no cloud and light winds, then you need to bear in mind there may be a frost outside in the morning. The closer it is to zero, the greater the chance of seeing frost. If the air temperature is forecast to be below zero, then the risk of seeing frost is much higher.”ref This goes for surfaces like pots as well. Wind and cloud cover reduce the chance of frost at a given temperature.

The actual temperature which will damage or kill roots is species-specific, so there’s no hard and fast rule but knowing where a tree comes from should give you an indication. In general the species common in the boreal forests such as many Pinaceae and Betula pendula will cope best with freezing temperatures. Some ornamental tree ‘killing temperatures’ are provided in this list.

So what should you do to help your trees defend themselves against frost damage?

The first thing to do is to let them be exposed to the cold over time, before it freezes. Give them time to activate their COR genes and establish cold acclimation. This includes not putting them in a polytunnel or shed or wrapping them up until they’ve had some time in colder temperatures (but not freezing).

It’s also useful to have actual temperature data from the location where your pots are going to be over winter. This can be achieved using a digital thermometer/hygrometer which records the temperature and humidity at regular intervals – there are many wireless/bluetooth-enabled options now which are very reasonably priced (I just bought 3 for £35, one for my garden bonsai bench, one for my allotment bed and one for my allotment greenhouse). This will enable you to monitor what the temperature does relative to the forecast so you can better predict the forecast in your actual location – and you can see which locations might provide better winter protection. If you see the temperature approaching zero you can act to protect your trees.

Then, adopting a form of overwintering system could be beneficial. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this involves watering everything well, without overwatering.ref The reason for this is to avoid dehydration. Then providing a physical barrier to the cold, effectively a ‘tree duvet’. This can move the frost surface away from the pot edges. You could use an insulating blanket of some kind, but do some research – one study found that ‘microfoam thermoblanket’ made a difference, but clear, black or white poly did not.ref The covering would need to have insulating properties, and not get saturated with water such that it would then freeze anyway. You could also move your trees into a polytunnel, garden shed or greenhouse, with the walls and air inside acting as a form of insulation. If you use a digital thermometer you can monitor these to ensure they aren’t getting too cold – note that polytunnels have been found to get cold enough to damage roots.ref

The absolute best is to provide some form of heat so that the temperature can’t go below a certain point – in practice this could be moving your pots closer to your house, using a (lightly) heated propagation bed, or putting them in a (lightly) heated greenhouse or outhouse. You don’t want them to think it’s spring so there shouldn’t be too much heat, just enough to keep the temperature above freezing. Be aware that in a warmer environment such as a shed your trees will deacclimate earlier as well, so make sure they don’t go back outside into a frost as they may have lost their cold acclimation.