Ornamental Tree - Strange Overnight Death

Asked September 28, 2020, 12:45 PM EDT

Hi, Approx. two months ago, my (10 yr. old ?) Sand Cherry tree went from fully leafed out to what appears to be totally dead(?) with every leaf wilted. It had never shown any obvious problem previously and no herbicide or fertilizer was used on or near it. We were having a dry spell at the time and while I can't remember, we may have had a night or two of uncharacteristically low temp. Any idea what could have happened to it and is it most likely gone? Thank you, Len

Frederick County Maryland

3 Responses

Unfortunately, the sand cherry is a short lived plant in our area usually about 10 years. The plant is cold hardy but not heat tolerant. This tree is also susceptible to a number of disease and insect pests. The last several years have been stressful for woody plants due to excessive moisture and then drought which affects the root system.

When stressed due to drought, excessive moisture, poor soils, poor planting techniques, etc. the plant can be become susceptible to insect and disease issues.
We notice landscape fabric around the base of the trunk and trunk damage due to possible boring insects and/or cankers ihttps://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/cankers-trees-and-shrubs
in the right photo. These is no control for borers once in the main trunk. All you can do is avoid wounding the trees and make sure mulch is no thicker than several inches and away from the trunk. https://extension.umd.edu/hgic/topics/borers-trees

Purple-leaf Sand Cherry is best grown in moist, organically rich, well-drained soils in full sun. It does tolerate part shade, but best flowering and leaf color generally occur in full sun. You can scratch the bark with your fingernail and look for green tissue. If you see it, the branch may be viable. If you see brown/gray it is dead. The plant looks dead and most likely will not return to its former glory.
Take a look at the attached link from Illinois which offers additional information.
Consider replacing with another type of shrub perhaps a native that will grow best in the side conditions including mature height and width. https://extension.illinois.edu/blogs/hort-home-landscape/2015-05-08-plant-week-purple-leaf-sand-cher...



Thank you so much for such a quick and comprehensive reply.

I think I will replace it with a crepe myrtle, which is my wife's favorite tree, unless you would advise against it.

Thank you again,



Crepemyrtle is a fine choice as they grow well in our area. If the site is in full sun (6+ hours daily in summer) they should flower well; if not, while they will tolerate shade, they will not bloom as nicely. Additionally, as with most plants not suited to wet soils, simply make sure the soil in that part of the yard drains adequately and there shouldn't be any major issues. Minor pests and diseases can occur on crepemyrtle (powdery mildew and aphids, primarily) but rarely cause any major problems. There are cultivars of crepemyrtle with noted better disease resistance than others, so opting for one of those can be helpful. (There are almost a hundred on the market these days in a dizzying array of subtle and not-so-subtle differences, so you can fairly easily customize a choice for flower color, mature size without pruning, and disease resistance.)

If you're interested in other ideas, options for a sunny and perhaps dry or at least well-drained site that have a similar overall growth habit to sand cherry include the following, which are less ubiquitous then crepemyrtle:

  • Beach Plum (Prunus maritima) - native; edible fruits or good to leave for wildlife
  • Smokebush (sometimes called Smoketree; Cotinus coggygria) - colorful foliage; unusual "smoke"-like cloud of tiny flowers/seeds
  • Chaste-tree (really more of a shrub; Vitex agnus-castus) - reminiscent of a butterfly bush in bloom shape but with a Japanese Maple-like leaf shape
  • Seven-son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides) - similar to crepemyrtle in growth pattern - multi-stemmed - and having peeling bark, but with very late-opening flowers that have some fragrance; sepals (petal-like parts behind a flower) turn ruby after blooms fade, creating a sort of "second bloom" which is unique