Protect Your Trunks: Sunscald Kills
January 25, 2020
Follow-Up to Last Week’s “Transplanting Plum Trees” Column
Just after last week’s column on transplanting 8-year-old plum trees was published, City of Las Cruces Community Forester Jimmy Zabriskie contacted me about another important consideration: sunscald. Zabriskie pointed out that care should be taken to be sure transplants are oriented in the same direction in their new spot as they were when they were originally planted. The concern here is that the southwest side of the trunk may have already been hardened and is better able to withstand afternoon sun during winter months. If a tree is inadvertently rotated, there could be higher risk of getting winter sunscald (aka southwest injury) on that tender side. Zabriskie also notes that orientation should be considered when transplanting other ornamental plants like shrubs, cacti, and agaves.
I’m glad Zabriskie brought this up because I’m concerned that winter sunscald is a much bigger problem for our trees than we realize, and not just for new transplants. What’s more, it’s preventable with a few simple steps.
Have you ever noticed bark buckling off the tree trunk? Or blisters on the southwest side of the trunk while the other side looks fine? Go outside and take a look for yourself. Sometimes the differences are shocking.
What happens, in short, is that bark on the southwest side of the trunk is exposed to afternoon sun, and the sap gets warm enough that it starts moving in the tree. Normally this is fine, except that on especially cold nights in winter the cells carrying sap rupture, causing damage that’s irreparable. This is particularly a concern on trees with thin bark—often younger trees, or species like honey locust and apple.
Winter sunscald is especially a problem in climates with intense sun exposure and extreme fluctuations between daytime and nighttime temperatures, like we have in New Mexico.
Painting the trunks of trees with a white latex paint (do not use oil-based) is an easy way to protect the trees from southwest injury because the white surface reflects more sunlight and the trunk stays noticeably cooler. Dilute the white latex paint to half strength with water. It goes on easy and can stay on year-round. As the tree grows and as the paint is exposed to the environment, it will naturally fall away. It is not needed during the summer, but you may need to reapply it next winter.
Low branches on the south and southwest side of the tree help by shading the trunk, so leave these branches intact as long as possible. Shrubs or other things shading the trunk can help too.
Another option, if you do not want bright white tree trunks in your landscape, is a light-colored trunk wrap that is loose enough to allow air flow and does not dig into the bark (white paper or even newspaper will do). A clear or dark-colored wrap is not recommended. To be safe, loosely wrap your trunks when the trees go dormant in December, but do not forget to remove the wraps each spring.
To access another column with more examples of white washing tree trunks for sunscald prevention, go to Desert Blooms and search “injury.” While you’re there, search “plum” to find the original column on transplanting fruit trees.
Marisa Y. Thompson, PhD, is the Extension Horticulture Specialist, in the Department of Extension Plant Sciences at the New Mexico State University Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center, email: firstname.lastname@example.org, office: 505-865-7340, ext. 113.
Please copy your County Extension Agent and indicate your county of residence when you submit your question!