This is a blog about the native conifers of the Pacific Northwest. It is a companion to the Northwest Conifers site. The blog will focus on timely and interesting details about our conifers, their connections to the rest of the environment, and our connection to them.

Friday, January 13, 2017

How Do Conifers Survive the Cold?

Snow on Noble Fir

December is the month of the fir, when it stands resolute, defying the wind and cold.  May is the month of the oak, when it springs to life in an outburst of vivid green.  October is the month of the Maple, when it blazes with the glory of the sun.

But in December, when the fickle oak and failing maple stand barren and leafless in the deepening cold, the fir flourishes, spreading its verdant needles in a steadfast display.  Even when winter covers its branches with snow, underneath the fir endures, a faithful testament to the promise of life.
Ken Denniston - December 1991

The recent cold weather in Oregon got me thinking about just how conifers are able to survive freezing temperatures. Even in the mountains where temperatures drop well below 0° Fahrenheit, conifers endure the cold, often showing no ill effects. When temperatures warm in spring, they, in turn, spring to life and put on new growth.

Ice on Douglas Fir
Freezing is not good news for most living things. It kills many plants and most animals. When living cells turn to ice, they are usually destroyed. Frost kills many crops and other plants. How is it, then, that some trees can survive the freezing cold temperatures of winter?

If you search the Internet and have the patience to wade through some very technical scientific papers, you will find a mountain of information about conifer cold hardiness. Here is a short, summary of what I was able to find and unscramble.

Conifers have developed two mechanisms to deal with winter cold: Freezing tolerance and freezing avoidance. 

Freezing tolerance: Plant cells can tolerate freezing by moving water out of the cell where it freezes without damaging the cell. The concentrated sap in the cell has a lower freezing point and remains in liquid form. This process also leaves the cells dehydrated. To survive, they must also be tolerant of dehydration.

Freezing avoidance: Plant cells can avoid freezing using a process called supercooling. This is a process in which water drops below its freezing point of 32° F. without turning to ice. How is this possible? Normally, when water freezes at 32°, it requires a seed particle. The ice crystals can then begin to form around the seed. This seed could be a tiny spec of some impurity. Water with no impurities can cool to about -40° and still remain liquid. Plants survive by maintaining pure water inside their cells.

Of course, there are limits to how well these strategies can protect conifers from freezing cold. This is why you won’t find any conifers growing on the north coast of Alaska.  

Not all conifers are equally cold hardy. You will see the cold hardy ones growing at the timberline in the mountains. Most conifers that you see growing at lower elevations cannot survive the cold temperatures near the timberline in the mountains. The US Department of Agriculture has developed a hardiness zone system and mapped these zones for the US, shown on the map below.

You can find the zone where you live here
You can find the hardiness zones for each conifer here

Even cold-hardy conifers can be damaged by extreme cold. The trees acclimate to the cold in the winter, but rapid temperature changes can still cause damage. New growth on trees and seedlings are more vulnerable to freezing damage. If a cold snap comes in the spring after new buds begin to grow, they can be killed. This happened to the new growth on many subalpine firs around Mt. Hood in the spring of 2016.

Note that there is considerable genetic variability in cold hardiness within a species. Trees adapt to the conditions where they grow. For example, Douglas firs growing at 5000 feet on Mt. Hood are more cold hardy than those growing in the valleys of the Coast Range. If you gather seeds from the low-elevation trees and plant them up at 5000 feet in the Cascades, they will not be able to thrive in that cold environment.

Hoyt Arboretum - January 12, 2017
More info.
“Mechanisms in Frost Survival and Freeze-Damage in Nature” by Marja-Liisa Sutinen, et al.  in Conifer Cold Hardiness, Ed. by Francine J. Bigras and Stephen Colombo, P. 90ff. Available here.


  1. Nice intro Ken - roots of your conifer passion?

  2. I live in Las Vegas and just planted 10 2 foot Italian cypress. We'really going to have a few days of reeling temperatures. Will my trees survice?

    1. Hard to say. They are cold hardy down to 10 degrees F. But replanting and the cold may be a shock too great.

  3. Great article, thank you. Do you think it's possible to get a conifer to take water if it's suffering from winter dehydration? A wicked December cold snap in Maine put a fall planted Alaskan cedar into crisis. During this unexpected February warm snap I been thawing the area from the trunk to the extremity of the ball using a water trickle. This strategy may be misguided, especially if we get another hard freeze, but I had to try something. Thanks.

    1. Well, Alaska cedars are acclimated to wet winters. I don't think they tolerate frozen soil well. This can be a problem when there is insufficient snowpack. That might be the problem rather than dehydration. But they probably don't tolerate winter dehydration either. But I'd suspect that your tree may just be suffering the effects of the recent planting.

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