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Ask a Master Gardener: Selecting Hurricane Resilient Trees for Urban Landscapes

By: Beau Brodbeck, PhD – Extension Specialist in Urban Forestry | Hurricane season is stressful. We watch storms develop over the Atlantic and wonder: “Will this be our next storm? What will happen to my trees? Do I have enough homeowner’s insurance?” While maintaining your trees is key to making them safer and more storm resilient, selecting new trees that are more wind resistant ensures a beautiful and safer landscape for the future.

Hurricane frequency and intensity are projected to increase in the years ahead. It’s important we start planting trees that can survive and continue to provide the countless benefits that make trees a critical component of healthy communities. There is a growing body of evidence that the right tree in the right place and properly maintained can shelter homes from wind and airborne debris. It’s no secret that the wrong trees can cause catastrophic damage and insurance companies are starting to figure this out. As we loo k to the future, our landscapes must be more storm-tolerant. Just as we add fortified roofs and hurricane straps to our homes, we need “fortified” landscapes. We should consider three key questions: 1) What makes a hurricane-tolerant tree? 2) What design features make a more wind-resilient landscape? 3) Which tree species are most wind tolerant?

What makes a hurricane-tolerant tree?

Almost without exception, native trees are more wind tolerant. Our coastal ecosystems are subjected to frequent storms and hurricanes. (On average, Mobile is hit or brushed by a hurricane every 2.4 years.) Native trees have characteristics that make them less prone to fail. The most hurricane-tolerant trees are short, with low canopies, thick trunks, and strong, dense wood; think live oak. Storm-resilient trees grow slowly, developing wood that resists decay. Faster growing species, like yellow poplar or water oak, have weaker wood which tends to form hollows and cavities. Finally, trees with smaller windsails, which often means pyramid-shaped canopies (small limbs up high and wider limbs down low) with sparse foliage, catch less wind; think pond cypress and river birch.

What design features make for wind-tolerant landscapes?

Observations of natural ecosystems demonstrate trees in dense forests sustain less damage than thinned forests or single trees. Using this lesson, plant trees in groupings of five or more wherever possible. Don’t forget about rooting space. Avoid planting large trees in small spaces or compacted soils. Trees need to have radially distributed, wide-spreading, and deep roots to properly anchor. Finally, avoid planting large trees within fifty feet of your home or utility lines as this creates future conflicts (Use small or medium-size trees for smaller spaces or close to homes).

Which tree species are most wind tolerant?

Let’s review a few of my favorite wind-resilient landscape trees. Please note, this list was derived from research by the University of Florida and my own observations as an urban forester on Alabama’s Gulf Coast for over fifteen years.

Live oaks exhibit most of the characteristics of wind-tolerant trees, including shedding leaves and small limbs early during storm events to reduce their windsail. Select live oaks with a strong central leader and avoid trees with multiple limbs originating from a single point on the trunk. These lead to cracks and failures years in the future.

Southern magnolias are a counterintuitive choice, but research from the University of Florida suggest this tree is very wind tolerant. These dense canopies are typically pyramid shaped and able to bend and contort to shed wind. If planting these, consider leaving lower limbs so that they can contain their “messy” leaves, as grass will not thrive under these trees.

Bald and pond cypress are some of the most wind tolerant species due to central trunks, pyramid- shaped canopies, and dense wood characteristics. The narrowly canopied pond cypress is a good choice for landscapes where space is an issue.

Dahoon hollies are a great choice for small landscapes and planting close to homes. They are among the most wind-resilient trees, add beautiful red berries in the fall and winter, and produce lightly textured foliage that allows lawns to flourish below.

Below are some additional small and large trees with high and medium-high wind resistance.

Small Trees: (10-35 feet tall)

High Wind Resistance

Medium-high wind resistance

Dahoon Holly (Ilex cassine)

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

Yaupon Holly (Ilex vomitoria)

Ironwood (Carpinus caroliniana)

Sparkleberry (Vaccinium arboretum)

Fringe Tree (Chiananthus virginicus)

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

American Hophornbeam (Ostraya virginiana)

Saucer Magnolia (Magnolia Soulangiana)

Larger Trees: (40 feet or greater)

Sand Live Oak (Quercus geminate)

River Birch (Betula nigra)

Live Oak (Quercus virginiana)

Florida Sugar Maple (Acer barbatum)

Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora)

Sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua)

American Holly (Ilex opaca)

Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana)

Turkey Oak (Quercus laevis)

Swamp Chestnut (Quercus michauxii)

Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)

Shumard Oak (Quercus shumardii)

Pond Cypress (Taxodium ascendens)

Winged Elm (Ulmus alata)

Most palms (Sabal, date, canary, etc.)

Hickory spp. (Carya spp.)

Common Persimmon (Diaspyros virginiana)

gh Wind Resistance

igh Wind Resistance

It is important to remember that tree selection is only part of the equation to storm resilient landscapes. Training young trees to develop strong central leaders (single trunk), proper branch distribution, and regular maintenance as they mature is also critical.

Live oaks demonstrate most of the characteristics of wind-tolerant trees. Photo by Beau Brodbeck, PhD

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