Plants and Flowers Get the Cold Shoulder


The three-day freeze that decimated citrus crops in the Central Valley and even parts of Ventura County, finally hit my West Los Angeles garden on the last night, Christmas Eve.

And on Christmas Day, frosted impatiens and fuchsias were under my tree.

Over the hill in the San Fernando Valley, it was below freezing all three nights, but “we weren’t hit hard,” said Lillian Greenup of Sperling Nursery in Calabasas. “We lost half the nursery in 1990,” which was the last year a big freeze swept through the Southland.

This year’s freeze was unusual because it was so early in the season. January and February are more typical times for a killer freeze.


The three nights of cold temperatures froze the water in fountains and birdbaths in inland areas and nipped the “normal” things, even as close to the coast and as far south as Encinitas, according to Kirk Bailey at Sunshine Gardens.

The “normal” plants to suffer in a freeze, are hibiscus, bougainvilleas, bananas, giant bird of paradise, philodendrons, pentas, begonias, impatiens and other tender tropicals or subtropicals. And poinsettias, which froze outdoors even on front porches.


Many perfectly hardy perennials quickly went dormant after the freezing nights, ones that often linger through milder winters. This shouldn’t be confused with frost damage, which typically shows up the next day or so as brown or black leaves that are often mushy.

Citrus were “unhappy,” said Greenup, with their leaves drooping down instead of pointing up, but in most areas were not damaged.

Frank Burkard of Burkard Nurseries in Pasadena said only some citrus “were looking kinda droopy,” though most fared fine even in temperatures that got down into the upper 20s on the Eastside. Even if they lose their leaves, they should rebound in spring.

In fact, established navels and other winter-bearing citrus seem to be having their biggest crop in years in Southern California.

In Pasadena, Burkard even lost a few very tender palms that were in greenhouses, but located too close to the walls. In most cases, coverings or shade structures protected plants.


In my own garden, the impatiens directly under the branches of the tree were fine, though parts of the plant that stuck out got frosted, as were all those open to the sky. You could see the outline of the tree on the impatiens below. Some plants were half frosted, half alive and still flowering.

Bougainvilleas in many areas, including Encinitas, dropped their leaves, “but that’s not unusual in cold winters,” said Bailey. “Some become almost bare.”


Certain places were hit harder than most and new plantings were hit hardest. Bailey said he’d heard that one recent subdivision had almost all of its new plantings blackened by frost.


On the other hand, some areas got off scot-free. Sterling Waldron at Sheridan Gardens in Burbank said that where he lives in Hollywood there was no damage at all, but when he drove over the hill into the Valley, there was considerable damage.

“Even tender plants we protected under overhangs and covers got frosted at the nursery,” he said, like princess flower, bougainvillea, hibiscus, even some ficus.

Simply driving around the Valley, one could see damage to many, if not most, tropicals.

“There’s lots of foliage burn,” said Daryl Waldron, who runs the Sheridan Gardens nursery in Sun Valley, but very little damage to branches and trunks. Burkard said he saw no damage to plant tissue, just foliage. “Everything should recover.”


In the meantime, all these nursery professionals have the same advice--do nothing now. Don’t prune, or even remove foliage--if you can stand the sight--until the end of February near the coast, or March 15 farther inland. By then, the chance of another frost should have passed.

Pruning will only encourage more growth, which could get frosted again, and the dead leaves or bare branches will help protect the plant from further frosts.

When frost threatens again--and it probably will during this cold winter--you can often protect plants by covering them with blankets or sheets, or moving container plants closer to the house or under overhangs.