How Trees Survive Winter

Winter in Westchester County is not exempt from the brisk New England cold.  How trees survive winter is a mystery to most, which we are going to discuss and get to the bottom of in this article!

Westchester Tree Life

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Though the base of the tree is insulated by winter snow, the rest of the tree is left exposed.  Trees begin winter preparation during the late summer months, once the days become shorter.  During this time, the cold weather affects the leaves directly, changing their green color to orange, red, yellow and then brown.

Late Autumn Tree

We know from research plant physiologist Paul Schaberg (with the USDA Forest Service’s Aiken Forestry Sciences Laboratory in Burlington, Vermont) that there are three basic ways by which living tree cells prevent freezing.

Tree Cell Membrane Winter

“When the ice crystal forms between the cells, the energetics of the frozen water molecules draw more water to themselves as it gets colder, so water starts to travel through the plasma membrane towards the ice crystal and freezes out there, instead of inside the cell itself.” via

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  1. Trees change their membranes during their acclimation to the cold, so the membranes become more pliable; water is then allowed to migrate out of the cells and into the space between the cells.  The relocated water then exerts pressure against the tree cell walls.
  2. Another way trees stave off freezing is by sweetening the fluids within its living cells.  a tree converts its starches to sugars during autumn; this acts as something of an antifreeze.  The freezing point inside the cells is then lowered due to the cellular fluid within the living cells being concentrated with natural sugars.  This makes the cells more pliable in winter, thus they are squeezed but not punctured by expanding ice crystals.
  3. The last way trees cope during winter involves what Schaberg refers to as the “glass phase”.  During the “Glass Phase”, liquid cell contents become viscous to the point of appearing solid, resulting in a kind of suspended molecular animation.  This mechanism is triggered by the progressive cellular dehydration resulting from the first two defense mechanisms, allowing the “super-cooled” contents of the tree cells to avoid becoming crystallized.

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