I have a Red Japanese Maple Tree (apx. 12 years old). Has always been very...

Asked May 17, 2014, 7:30 AM EDT

I have a Red Japanese Maple Tree (apx. 12 years old). Has always been very healthy until this year. Not many leaves, just looks sick. Help.

Livingston County Michigan trees and shrubs

1 Response

Japanese maples always have been a bit of garden divas. It takes very little to knock them off their game. Most are considered zone 5 (guardedly). That means they are good to ten below zero to twenty below zero, if you are fortunate. Last winter, it dropped below that twenty below multiple times. That translates into leaf bud damage. They froze and the rigid cell walls exploded. If it was bad enough, twigs also froze. Then it could have been small branches and so on to bigger and bigger wood.

Right now, all you can do is basically wait to see what is alive and what is not. The tree makes that determination. If you are missing leaves, look for other leaf buds to form. If there is nothing in an area by the first week of June, it is dead.

Scratching bark to see if it is alive falls into the category of garden nonsense. If it is green below the bark, you have no idea if that area is improving or declining so don't even bother. Buds will tell what is going on.

If June rolls around and there is less than 50% of the leaves on the tree that should be, it may never recover to look as cute as it once did or possibly survive the next winter. If there is enough left alive, prune out obviously dead wood.

What to do: water the tree if the soil is dry and keep three inches of woodchip or other organic mulch in the root area all around the tree to moderate temperatures and prevent top evaporation.

What not to do: do not fertilize because it is likely to cause damage or possibly kill the tree. Damaged trees do not need to try to handle nitrogen when they are struggling.