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Hurricane Resistant Trees

This allée of bald cypresses shows that these strong, wetland trees also perform beautifully as street trees.

If you live in hurricane country –which encompasses just about any place in the U.S. within 100 miles of the Atlantic seaboard – the wrong tree in the wrong place can pose a major threat to life and property.  This is something to keep in mind when you plan and plant your garden.

Hurricane-Resistant Tree Features

Of course, stronger hurricanes cause greater damage, all else being equal.  But the potential impact of even a major hurricane can be tempered if you plant strong-rooted, wind-resistant trees in favorable positions.

Whatever trees you choose, they’ll be more hurricane-resistant if their roots have ample room.  A tree’s root system typically spreads well beyond its canopy.  Give it less, and it will be relatively weakly anchored and poorly nourished.  A 30-foot-wide tree in a 15-foot-wide planting area is asking to become hurricane fodder. 

This elm fell prematurely after a hurricane largely because it was poorly anchored in a small streetside tree lawn.

Soil depth also matters.  If your soil is on the sandy or heavy side, your trees are likely to have relatively shallow roots.  A yearly 1-inch mulch of Fafard® Premium Topsoil will help their roots grow denser and deeper.  Be sure to mulch the whole root zone, if possible.

A tree’s crown size also influences its susceptibility to hurricane damage.  Shorter trees afford the wind less leverage.  Tree species and varieties of small to moderate size (15 to 30 feet) are not only less likely to topple, they also cause less damage if they do.  This may seem self-evident, but it doesn’t prevent thousands of homeowners from planting large trees in potentially disastrous proximity to buildings, driveways, and other targets.  Our advice: don’t.

Trees of all sizes benefit from companions.  Groups of similarly sized trees – spaced at the width of their mature crowns – are relatively hurricane-resistant compared to singletons.  Likewise, large trees – where appropriate – call for an underplanting of smaller, shade-tolerant trees and shrubs.  In addition to being ecologically apropos, this planted understory will at least partially survive even a catastrophic hurricane.

A further factor to consider is the direction of the strongest hurricane winds – typically from the southeast or northeast.  Niches sheltered from these winds (for example, to the west of a building) will suffer relatively light damage.  Conversely, fully exposed sites are especially inappropriate for hurricane-susceptible trees.

Hurricane-Resistant Trees

Having chosen a good site for your tree, you’ll probably want to choose a relatively hurricane-resistant species.  Studies of hurricane damage show that some tree species – including the following eastern U.S. natives – stand up particularly well to wind.  Even better, some of these species come in compact forms that offer even greater hurricane resistance.

Strong-wooded musclewood trees are small to medium-sized, have unusual bark, and will withstand high winds and harsh weather.

American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana): 25 to 40 feet tall; full to part sun; USDA Cold Hardiness Zones 3 to 9.  This compact tree has smooth, fluted bark and exceptional fall color. It grows in the understory in the wild, but in cultivation, it is at its best in full sun and moist, fertile, friable soil.  It is also known as blue beech and musclewood.

Everyone loves the beauty of dogwoods in spring, but these trees are also surprisingly resilient to hurricane weather.

Flowering dogwood (Cornus florida): 20 feet; full to part sun; Zones 5 to 8.  This common flowering tree offers white flowers in mid-spring, attractive scaly gray bark, and burgundy fall color.  The many varieties of this old-time favorite include the pink-bloomed ‘Cherokee Brave’ and floriferous ‘Cloud 9’.

If you don’t mind the prickly foliage, American hollies are great native, evergreen trees that will stand up to the worst stormy weather.

American holly (Ilex opaca):  30 to 40 feet; full sun to light shade; Zones 5 to 9.  This tall, conical holly has spiny evergreen leaves and red berries on female plants, when a male pollenizer is present. Notable compact varieties include the yellow-fruited ‘Helen Mitchell’, variegated ‘Steward’s Silver Crown’ (female), and large-berried ‘Satyr Hill’.

Large, bowl-shaped summer blooms and evergreen foliage are two of the most notable features of southern magnolia, but storm resistance is another.

Southern magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora):  20 to 50 feet; full to partial sun; Zones 6 (for the hardiest cultivars) to 9.  Broad lustrous evergreen leaves with fuzzy undersides and large waxy flowers in summer make this an exceptional landscape tree.  Look for ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty’, a compact, hardy form that matures at 25 to 30 feet and handles Zone 6 winters.

The native hop hornbeam is a woodland tree that also makes a good landscape tree for hurricane-prone areas.

Hop hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana):  30 to 50 feet; full to partial sun; Zones 5 to 9.  Reaching 25 to 40 feet when mature, this shaggy-barked understory native forms a dense oval-crowned specimen when planted in full sun.  It has good gold fall color. It is also known as “ironwood”, for its strong densely grained trunk.

Many oaks make excellent storm-resistant additions to open lawns and landscapes. The key is making sure they have enough ground to fully develop supportive root systems.

Shumard red oak (Quercus shumardii):  40 to 70 feet; sun; Zones 5 to 9.  This handsome, deciduous U.S. native oak has pointy-lobed leaves that color wine-red in late fall or early winter.  Its close relative, maple-leaved oak (Quercus acerifolia), features a compact habit and five-lobed, maple-like leaves.  Shingle oak (Quercus imbricaria) is another good choice, offering relatively slow, compact growth (to 50 to 70 feet), shiny unlobed leaves, burgundy fall color, and Zone 4 to 8 hardiness.

Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum):  40 to 70 feet; sun to light shade; Zones 5 to 11. A strong constitution helps support this tree in high winds. It is a striking deciduous conifer with a conical habit and feathery foliage that goes burnt-orange in fall.  (Read our recent bald cypress article for a description of more compact cultivars.)

About Russell Stafford


Hortiholic and plant evangelist, Russell Stafford, transplanted his first perennial at age 7 and thereby began a lifelong plant addiction. He is the founder and custodian of Odyssey Bulbs (and Odyssey Perennials), an online nursery specializing in cool and uncommon plants. Russell also works as a horticultural consultant, freelance writer (Horticulture and The American Gardener magazines), and garden editor. He formerly served as Curator and Head of Horticulture at Fernwood Botanic Garden in Niles, Michigan and as the Horticultural Program Coordinator at the Center for Plant Conservation, then located at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts. His academic degrees include a masters in forest science from Harvard University.

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