Brown Vegetation After Hurricane Irma

By Kathy Panko, Environmental Issues Group

Burned leaves- Hurricane Irma

Florida is recovering from Hurricane Irma.  However, many plants and trees now have brown leaves on the sides where Irma blew the strongest – east and south.  Some look like they were scorched with a blowtorch because the hurricane winds lasted so long.  Gradually, leaves will turn from dark green to dull green to brown because of wind damage, known as wind burn.  Even hearty plants such as the sea grape, which survive on the oceanfront, have been affected.

Dead tree tops- Hurricane Irma

More damage could emerge in upcoming weeks as plants continue to react to the climactic change.  Some recovery results may take years.   When plants are stressed, they shut down and try to save energy.  The extremities, such as leaves, die and fall off.   Plants need time to recover, so wait a few weeks before pruning.  Plants that lose their leaves during a storm are often the survivors.

Based on historic data with past hurricanes in Florida, some palms have proven to be more resilient than others.

  • Highest wind resistance: Foxtail, Cabbage (Sabal) Palm, Coconut, Royal Palm, Pygmy Date, and Canary Island Date
  • Lowest wind resistance: Queen, Royal Poinciana, Washingtonian, and Mexican Fan Palms

During Hurricane Irma, some palms toppled over, roots and all, while others were snapped in half.


Wind burned palm trees- Hurricane Irma Other palms were likely stressed because the terminal bud* was damaged by the high winds.  There is no way to determine whether these trees will bounce back, so the best approach is to wait-and-see.  Damage to the bud will show up in the new growth.  As new leaves develop, they may be distorted, off-color or smaller than usual but, over time, the palm may recover and leaves may return to normal.  It is important to leave a full head of fronds (from 9 o’clock to 3 o’clock) in place to protect the center bud.

As we gradually get into cooler weather, it will be a good time to put in new landscape plants.  The cooler weather will allow root systems a chance to establish while there is less stress on the plants.   You might consider selecting trees that are wind-resistant based on past experiences.

*A palm tree has a single growing point at the top of its trunk.  This point and its surrounding tissues are called the terminal bud.  If the terminal bud is injured, the palm may die.


Sources: Florida Department of Environmental Protection    09/18/2017      The Florida Times-Union 09/19/2017       BGI: Palm Trees 101