April 29, 2019

Revisiting the Critical Temperatures for Freeze Damage to Fruit Trees

It's time once again to revisit the critical temperatures that can cause frost damage to fruit trees, specifically apple trees.  We are currently at tight cluster to pink here in northern Illinois with a weekend that gave us temperatures in the upper 20's and about 6" of snow. Fortunately, our lowest recorded temperature was 28.7 degrees, 7/10 of a degree above the damage lever!   This spring has marked another unprecedented weather pattern that raised our temperatures in late March and early April and dropped our temperatures in late April to way below normal.  The early warm temperatures accelerated leaf tissue growth, and the lower temperatures that are anticipated present the threat of frost during bloom.  It seems that each spring since 2012, we have been on the verge of critical temperatures for frost damage with our fruit trees.

Dark brown centers and signed appearance of the petals
indicate that both king and side blooms were killed in a
freeze the morning this picture was taken.  (Photo credit:
Mark Longstroth, MSU Extension)
As the trees develop in the spring and buds start to swell, they lose the ability to withstand the cold winter temperatures that they could withstand in dormancy during the cold winter months. The young, actively growing tissue can then be damaged or even killed. Swollen fruit buds can better withstand temperatures in the teens without any damage. As the buds open, temperatures in the low 20s can cause harm, but sometimes leave other buds undamaged.  As growth moves from green tip to 1/4” green to 1/2” green to tight cluster to pink in apple trees, temperatures in the upper 20s can cause considerable harm to an early blooming tree. Near bloom, the range between slight and severe damage can be very small. Freezing temperatures of 28 degrees F. will result in about a 10 percent loss and 24 F will result in a 90 percent loss, as indicated by the charts down below.

The dark brown center of this apple flower  indicates it was
killed by a freeze. (Photo credit: Mark Longstroth, MSU Extension)
In a radiation freeze with clear, calm conditions, fruit at higher elevations or in the tops of trees will be less damaged than those at lower elevations, since colder air is more dense than warmer air and sinks to ground level, pushing the warmer air up. The percent of flowers killed in a frost may or may not relate directly to lost yield later in the season. With large-fruited fruits such as apples, peaches, plums and pears, the loss of 50 percent of the flower may not be devastating since we may only want a small percentage of the flowers to become fruit, meaning that fruit thinning may be totally unnecessary.  So the stage of bud and bloom development determines how susceptible any given fruit crop is when freezes occur.  For more information on what those critical temperatures are that can cause freeze damage to trees during development, I have added two charts on the Critical Temperatures For Frost Damage on Fruit Trees from Utah State University below that you can download by clicking on either chart below.

(Click on the photos to download the chart in PDF format.)
Given the weather patterns we have experienced so far this spring a spring frost could still be possible.  Once the fruit has set, then the critical temperatures that can damage the fruit become lower.   We will need to constantly assess the stage of development our trees are at over the next weeks and their susceptibility to possible freeze injury.

If we continue in this spell of colder weather, apple trees will continue to develop more slowly, but once they begin showing tight cluster, pink and bloom, the critical temperature rises from the low 20’s to the high 20s, to levels just below freezing at bloom time, which is where we are now.  

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