Zombie trees

We are still experiencing the effects of the freeze.

Never turn down an opportunity to reference a Rush song

Zombies are in your yard, in parks and along roadsides and other green spaces throughout Texas.

They’re trees that are partly dead and partly alive, struggling to move forward and waiting for the next big thing — even hotter temperatures, a drought, a hurricane — to seal their fate.

Count zombie trees as one more lingering effect of February’s winter storm.

Arborists and other tree experts say that in the months to come, the state could lose thousands if not millions of trees ranging from tall Mexican or California fan palms to a wide range of hardwoods such as lace bark elm, Chinese tallow and water oak. This would be the most dangerous threat to Texas’s tree inventory since the 2011 drought.

Trees with lots of dead branches and new green sprouts shooting out of the center are likely zombie trees. Even tall palms with new green fronds on top could be zombies, because you can’t see the potential damage inside of their lanky trunks.

Matt Petty, assistant district manager and a certified arborist at the Davey Tree Expert Co., said that the International Society of Arboriculture is calling for a two-year watch on trees damaged in the freeze.

“The zombie tree concept comes from trees that, from a distance, appear to be normal or healthy and as you get closer, you see the differences. They’re dead and we don’t know it yet,” Petty said, noting that the trees could have been struggling before the freeze. “Trees that lost their leaves from the freeze have sprouted out and, in many cases, look like they have recovered. As temperatures heat up, though, we’ll have trees that die.”

Petty said that he’s seen sycamores, rain trees, Chinese tallow, elms and water oaks suffering damage, but live oaks and magnolia trees — both popular shade trees in the Houston area — are doing well.


David N. Appel, a Texas A&M professor and a specialist in tree pathology noted that “zombie tree” isn’t a horticultural or agricultural term and showed restraint in using it.

He said that most trees with dead-looking branches and new shoots coming from the center could be zombie trees, but not all are. They’re certainly damaged trees, some of which will live and some of which will die, and it’s fairly obvious which branches should be pruned back.

“I’ve been from the Rio Grande all the way up to Wichita Falls, and I have talked to a lot of arborists and one thing is clear: The damage was remarkably similar, it’s just that the species were different depending on where you are,” Appel said. “In one place you hear a lot about lace bark elms, but in another place it might be some of the oak species. In Wichita Falls it was the Japanese black pine and Mondell pine.”

Appel said Texas will lose hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of trees.

“The picture has become much clearer than it was two months ago, but we still (won’t know the fate of) a lot of these trees for a long while,” he said. “We aren’t out of the woods yet, and that’s not a tree joke.”

The story references the 2011 drought, which was hell on trees in Houston and around the state, and Hurricane Harvey, neither of which is a great comparison for arborial life. Some trees, like palms, were recognizably dead following the February freeze, but for others it may not be certain for another year or two. For those of us who live in neighborhoods with older trees, it is worth the time and expense to have an arborist look at the trees around your house, because dead branches are a real threat in a big storm. Hope for the best, and do what you can to take care of the trees on your property.

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4 Responses to Zombie trees

  1. David Fagan says:

    15 days and counting………

  2. voter_worker says:

    There are other, pre-existing, categories of zombie trees: the street trees within the City of Houston that have never been maintained, those that have been butchered so as not to obscure visibility of business signs in strip centers, and inappropriate species that have been planted under overhead utility lines and then grotesquely pruned to minimize their contact with the lines.

  3. J says:

    Speaking of zombies… Fagan’s annoying countdown probably refers to September 18, when various traitors, criminals and losers will be lurching towards the halls of Congress in a moribund redux of Jan 6.

  4. Kibitzer Curiae says:

    Not sure what Fagan is counting down either, or what sense this makes if even regular readers can’t figure what he wants us to keep in mind … presumably it has to do with fire-fighter pay. So here is an update on the status of the litigation:


    The City of Houston Appellees have filed extension motions both in the Fourteenth Court of Appeals (for rehearing by the panel and by the court as a whole) and the Texas Supreme Court.

    The SCOTX Docket is here: https://search.txcourts.gov/Case.aspx?cn=21-0755&coa=cossup

    The corresponding Houston COA case docket (No. 14-19-00427-CV) is hotlinked in the lower section of the page. A reader-friendlier version of majority opinion (by Hassan) and dissent (by Ken Wise), combined into a single web page, has since become availalable on Google Scholar.

    I can only include one hotlink per comment to avoid going into KUFF limbo, but you can use the appellate case number to look up the case on Google Scholar if interested. You get 3 hits, 1 for the 2021 COA opinion, plus 2 earlier procedural orders.

    COA OPINION CITE: Houston Professional Fire Fighters Ass’n, et al. v. Houston Police Union, City of Houston, et al, No. 14-19-00427-CV (Tex.App.- Houston [14th Dist.] July 29, 2021, no pet. h.)(no petition in Tex. Sup. Ct. yet because only a motion for extention was filed)

    TAGS: City of Houston, Fire Fighters, Collective Bargaining, Governmental Entity Litigation, Public Employment

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