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Sad Succulents And Torn Tree Limbs: Storm Wipes Out Plants Around Austin, But There's Hope For Regrowth

Nopal cactus (aka Opuntia or Prickly Pear) damaged in southwest Austin.  Prickly pear cactus around Central Texas were damaged from a strong winter storm and freeze.  (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)
Nopal cactus (aka Opuntia or Prickly Pear) damaged in southwest Austin. Prickly pear cactus around Central Texas were damaged from a strong winter storm and freeze. (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)

Austin’s plants feel a bit like many of us do after last week's winter storm: broken, battered and hoping to recover. Once tall opuntia cacti have been reduced to prickly pear mush. Agave leaves lie in lumps on the ground.

John Dromgoole can identify with how they’re feeling.

“That's what tree-hugging is about: this connection to the natural world,” says Dromgoole, who runs Natural Gardener in Oak Hill. “You're not gonna hug an agave or some mesquite tree that's broken in half, but you can certainly sense the distress. Go out in the countryside, walk through the neighborhood, you can really feel it.”

Dromgoole turned an interest in organic gardening and using native drought-tolerant plants into a career that has spanned more than 40 years. He says he has never seen this happen after a freeze.

“It’s shocking,” he says. “You know, for the natives, even, that are well-adapted plants — this time they're having some problems.”

Ice accumulated on cactus and other plants in south Austin on Feb. 11 before the storm that devastated Austin plant life. (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)
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Ice accumulated on cactus and other plants in south Austin on Feb. 11 before the storm that devastated Austin plant life. (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)


Cris Vasquez of East Austin Succulents compares the plants to pipes in a house.

“When it reaches a certain temperature, the water in those pipes expands," he says, and "you end up with flooding and any number of problems."

Cacti and succulents are particularly susceptible because they store so much of their water inside.

“The issue is when it freezes, the water expands," Vasquez says. "It breaks those sturdy cell walls that they have, and everything just falls apart from there."

For the damaged parts of a plant, it’s over; they are not healing themselves. Vasquez recommends cutting those sections off, but not right away.

“What I'm going to recommend to people is patience,” he says. “I know that that's not really an active solution right now."

Vasquez says to leave some of the plant above the ground and just hold out.

“Don't rip it out of the ground just yet,” he says. “Give it a month, maybe even two. We might see some life from there.”

Dromgoole echoes that sentiment for trees and shrubs, as well.

“Holding off for a while is the real answer,” he says. “Let's see what happens, because there may be some regrowth — even on those that are broken in half.”

Some trees with larger breaks will need a little help, but a trimming work will go a long way to bring them back.

Nopal cactus damaged in southwest Austin. Prickly pear cactus around Central Texas were damaged from a strong winter storm and freeze.  (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)
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Nopal cactus damaged in southwest Austin. Prickly pear cactus around Central Texas were damaged from a strong winter storm and freeze. (Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News)


“Take those raw breaks and make ‘em nice and clean again, so the disease doesn't move into it, and put a little compost around them," Dromgoole says. "We're giving him the best chance that we can.”

If you do have to start over on your lawn, he recommends walking through your neighborhood in a few weeks and seeing what survived, then planting more of those types of plants.
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