It depends, but here's what to do now

Sago Palm Plant
Credit: DEA / RANDOM/Getty Images

It's not supposed to snow in New Orleans. It's not supposed to stay below freezing all day – and then do it again a week later. But it did and many tender evergreens there did not like it. Drive around the city now and it's a horror show of brown palm trees, brown sagos, brown oleanders, brown aloes, brown Confederate jasmine, brown Chinese hibiscus, and other carnage. Winter played hardball with the Big Easy.

Not just New Orleans, however. An unusually long, cold winter has torched plants all across the South. People see brown leaves and stems and wonder what to do. Should they cut down the plant now and start over? Or should they sit tight and see what happens next? Naturally, they ask the unimpeachable source of horticultural wisdom. Me.

First, take no drastic action now. Maybe your plant will recover; maybe it won't. But if you cut it to the ground now, you're bringing the latter result much closer to reality. This is 100% true for palm trees. Palm trees have a single growing point atop the trunk – called the apical meristem — where fronds emerge and expand. If that point is killed or cut off, the tree will die. Therefore, do nothing until you see if new growth begins up top in spring. If it does, it's OK to remove the brown fronds, but nothing else.

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What about crispy, brown evergreen shrubs and vines? Do the scratch test. Use a fingernail or pruners to scratch the bark on a branch, trunk, or stem to see if you can find a green layer underneath. If you can, that plant part is still alive and may send out new growth in spring. If you can't, that plant part is dead. Locate the topmost points of each plant where you can find green. Then cut back the plant to these points around March 1.

And remember, a dead plant is not necessarily a bad thing. If the cold wiped out your golden euonymus or thorny elaeagnus, Mother Nature just did you a favor.