University of Tennessee Gardens expert says some winter-damaged plants may bounce back

Winter-damaged gardenia in Jackson, Tenn.

Some regional favorites in the landscape may look dead because of severe winter damage, but their stems may well be alive. If so, they will soon put forth new growth like this gardenia. Photo by J. Reeves, courtesy UTIA.

Are some of your landscape plants looking a little worse for the wear?  The Winter of 2014 was certainly harsh, but University of Tennessee Gardens horticulturalist Jason Reeves says it’s too early to despair. Reeves is a research horticulturist with the UT Gardens, Jackson.

“While some plants will have been killed, others may only be damaged,” Reeves said. “Don’t be overzealous in removing them from the garden. Established woody plants with killed top growth stand a good chance of returning from their roots.”

Reeves added that rhizomes on plants like cannas may been damaged but he cautions gardeners not to  give up on favorite plants too early. “Just a surviving sprout or two can save the day and lead to a decent size clump by late summer,” Reeves said. “It could be as late as June before you know for sure what plants are not coming back from the roots.”

Any plant that is borderline hardy, as well as fall-planted specimens that are considered hardy once established, may have been damaged, he added. “A few plants I would be most concerned about include loropetalums, crapemyrtles, gardenias, edgeworthias, less hardy cultivars of Encore azaleas and camellias, Indian hawthorn, ‘Florida Sunshine' Illicium, rosemary and purple muhly grass.”

Reeves acknowledged that many gardeners don’t really know how temperature equate to the hardiness zone where they live. “Gardeners often say ‘I live in zone 7 and it has been hardy for me,’ but I ask has the plant actually gone through a zone 7 winter? Just because you live in zone 7 doesn’t mean it that a particular plant has been through that cold of a winter.” Reeves reminds gardeners to keep in mind that those who live in the city or near a river or lake have likely experienced warmer temperatures than those living in outlying areas. Also the length of time that the temperature remained extremely low affects plant survivability.

“We have been spoiled in recent years by our mild winters and have gotten away with making it through winter without the cold damaging or killing many plants that aren’t meant to be hardy,” he said.  “Annuals like begonias, petunias, verbena, lantana and tropicals such as elephant ears, angel trumpet and bananas have survived our recent winters, but plants we often forget are tropical, like cannas, may have been lost with this winter’s low temperatures.”

Still, if a particular plant is a favorite, it might be worth the wait before removing it from the landscape.

The UT Gardens
includes plant collections located in Knoxville, Jackson and Crossville. Designated as the official botanical garden for the State of Tennessee, the collections are part of the UT Institute of Agriculture. The gardens’ mission is to foster appreciation, education and stewardship of plants through garden displays, educational programs and research trials. The gardens are open during all seasons and free to the public. For more information see



Jason Reeves
, UT West Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center, 731-424-1643