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The beauty, danger of the icy glaze

I was driving through Amherst and Williamsville on Tuesday, and saw awesome scenery.

Every branch, every twig of every tree or shrub was coated with ice at least quarter-inch thick, on all sides. If a cabinetmaker applied lacquer that thick, it would take many coats over many days. I also imagined a pastry chef, wondering how many times she would have to brush on the sugar and egg whites to get that thickness?

Around one corporate park the shrubs were pruned into flat-topped diamond shapes, and the thick twig tips held onto so much liquid they looked like giant pudding cups full of shaved ice. And it took hours and hours of slowly freezing rain to achieve that icy buildup. Beautiful? Yes. But I held my breath wondering if more destruction is ahead.

>Looking around

In the Southtowns, all the plants are ice-coated, too. During my walk in the woods I saw thickets of red-twigged dogwoods sparkling. Each long needle of the white pines looked hand-dipped in a sugary glaze, and every little field grass was stiff with frosting.

There is a huge difference, however, among the trees in our towns: Here in East Aurora and in many parts of southern Erie County, the trees mostly stand intact, their shapes natural, graceful, just slightly bent with the weight of the ice. But in Buffalo, Tonawanda, Amherst and nearby towns, the distorted, broken trees -- branches snapped downward in the October storm -- are all the more tragic, highlighted by ice.

I hope we don't have high winds between this writing and your reading. Surely many more branches, some already cracked, would fall. Strong wind could also grab those thickened, frosted tree canopies, and blow them over (the roots mostly not frozen into the soil.)

Fortunately, the twigs of most shrubs I inspected are still flexible under the ice; they won't break with the first breeze. Still, any wind is destructive, as it speeds up the desiccation factor that comes with winter. Plants with green leaves or needles lose moisture in the wind, once the roots can't take up moisture.

>Winter's benefits

The best situation would be a gradual melting of the ice on the trees, then a steady period of freezing weather followed by a good blanket of snow. We may love the concept of premature spring, but there are benefits to winter weather. If the plants could go dormant, they would handle frosts and freezing temperatures much better than if they stayed in this half-awake state. (Plants are always the most at risk when they haven't built up a kind of anti-freeze. In early or late winter, the hard freezes do the most harm.)

Even in the perennial bed, while it was interesting to see so many plants still intact in January (Phlomis, Lamb's ears, foxgloves and Hellebores, all with great foliage), I am relieved to see them safely covered up with snow. Winter -- a normal, cold and snowy one -- is a good thing, so welcome to it!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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