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How, Exactly, do Freezing Temperatures affect Plants?

January 7, 2014

 

Noticing a chill in the air around the Gainesville headquarters of FDACS/DPI, we asked Botanist Marc Frank to enumerate the factors at play when plants are threatened by freezing temperatures. Here are his comments:

SealColorSmalll

Division of Plant Industry

Many factors influence how a plant responds to freezing temperatures.  These include the plant’s genetics, the severity and duration of the freeze, the plant’s location and exposure, how well established the plant is, its moisture and nutritional status, and whether it is already stressed by insect pests or disease. Hardy plants are genetically programmed to respond to cooler weather either by dormancy (and seasonal loss of tissues that are likely to be damaged by freezing) or by acclimatization, also known as hardening off, in which physiological changes allow the plant to withstand without damage the formation of ice within its tissues.

Many popular landscape plants in Florida, however, come from tropical or subtropical climates, and these plants are ill-equipped to withstand hard freezes because they are unable to go dormant or acclimatize.  In non-hardy plants, freezing temperatures result in the formation of ice crystals within plant cells, resulting in cell damage and subsequent desiccation.  Freezing affects cell membranes, impacting critical cell functions such as photosynthesis and respiration. Different plant tissues have varying degrees of sensitivity to freezing temperatures. If cell damage from freezing is extensive enough, the plant may be killed.

Marc S. Frank

Botany Section

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