After the Freeze in Phoenix

Here in Phoenix, we had four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures in Phoenix. The nighttime temperature went down to 24 degrees F, and the daytime hovered about the high 40s. If you live in the Midwest or East, this doesn’t sound bad at all, but our normal temperatures this time of year are in the low 60s during the day and between 35 and 40 at night.

Our plants are not built for this kind of deep-freeze. Freezing air settles differently in different places–it drifts, it kills the tops of plants more than the bottoms.

Here is some of the freeze damage I saw on my morning walk:


This tree is  a ficus. You know, the fussy plant you have in a decorative planter in your house. We have them as yard trees. In this photo, every leaf that looks brown is dead and will have to be trimmed off. that’s about a third of the tree.

Here’s a close up:


The totem pole cactus stands straight, looking like green candle wax in a chianti bottle. It takes about 20 years to grow one this size. Once it freezes, it can’t hold itself upright. In the background (top, left of the photo), you can see a grasstree with white portions. Those portions are frozen.


Prickly pear and paddle cactus didn’t fare much better:


This cactus will brown over the next few weeks. A more immediate browning happened on this blooming shrub. The white trumpet flowers cover the shrubs all winter. These were caught in mid-blossom:


For a naturalist (like me), seeing these plants dead or injured is painful. Some will come back, some won’t.

I remember New England winter days, after an ice storm, when you could hear the whine of chainsaws up and down the street for days, as they chewed up trees that had fallen or knocked down power lines. In a few weeks, you’ll hear them here, too, as we trim back what froze and wait for new growth.

–Quinn McDonald is a writer who is glad that the days of freeze are over. For now.


14 thoughts on “After the Freeze in Phoenix

  1. hi Quinn – you have the same temperatures we do in England -4C, but that’s during the day too and I can vouch for the fact it adds nothing to the pleasures of a major house move (doors wide open for hours at a time …). Forecast says -10 (14F) is possible over the next few days.

    I guess it’s all part of the natural cycle for the frost damaged parts of the plants and wobbly cacti to fall and decay to form a natural mulch for the survivors. Nature doesn’t care if that looks ugly along the way, though there’s beauty in decay too. I actually find the bronzy brown colour of the ficus tree (wow never knew they grew that big) against that blue sky a very inspiring colour combination.

    • You are right, death and decay is part of the cycle of life. And it’s hard to see it, just like most death is hard to see, but part of life. The bronze-y leaves are lovely, and in a few days they will turn light brown and fall off, leaving the branches exposed. If the branches died, which they did in this case, they will need to be trimmed off. The tree may not recover. And it’s all out of our control.

  2. Ah… I hear you. And such visuals to illustrate the freeze. Sorry about that. A true reminder that all things are impermanent. Part of the dance of life and, well, whatever happens after life as we know it. You know, in Hālawa Valley on the island of Molokai (HI), we walk along ancient trails under a canopy of trees so high and dense, it can feel like you’re looking up at the sky. And underfoot, we walk on centuries and centuries of things that were once alive–and now they are the path, itself. It’s like the Valley celebrates the whole cycle. And reminds us that in one thing’s absence, something new will grow.

  3. After 3 months of snow (another two inches last night) and temperatures in the -20C ranges, I find this story sends a warm glow through me. It evokes crisp fall evenings here in Edmonton. I am surprised though that the tops of plants are getting damaged. Cold air usually creeps along the ground. We have to cover low plants and shrubs and I have never seen tree-top damage from frost. Is Phoenix in a valley?

  4. Hi Q:

    So sorry about the freeze and your losses. I think you meant to add a “not” in this sentence?* Our plants are built for this kind of deep-freeze. * On Thu, Jan 17, 2013 at 2:03 AM, QuinnCreative

  5. This is just a guess, but I wonder if the residual heat from the ground protects the lower parts of plants. Another factor might be that the upper parts of many plants have more surface area, which would reduce the plant/air temperature gradient.

    Anyway, got to go; can’t concentrate over all the chain-saw noise around here!

  6. Quinn, care to swap with my 43C? Frosty sounds sooo goooooood! The crunchy brown bits in my garden were alive and green this morning, and even the hardiest of plants are dying. Mine, like yours, are desert dwellers and well accustomed to drought and heat. They look about the same as the ones in your photos too. Its certainly a year of extremes so far!
    Perhaps my word of the year should be fortitude?

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