Japanese maple tree

(Question)

I’m not really sure if my tree is dying, or what I can do to improve it. The leaves are curled and dry and it is now spring.  Nothing has bloomed and part of the trunk (first layer) is peeling off.  At the beginning of the spring the soil looked dry so I started to put water every other day.  The inside of most of my tree isn’t green but more of a brown, yellow colour and this is the first year it happened.  If a picture is needed I can send one.  Thanks for your help!

(Answer)

Japanese Maples are marginally hardy here in the Toronto area, especially in exposed locations and we did have a very severe winter (2015), so it is likely that your tree experienced severe winter damage.  If I understand correctly, you are not seeing any new leaves or buds, just last year’s dead foliage, and the branches and trunk are brown.  You did not say how old the tree is and how big.  If it was newly planted last year, it may have been especially susceptible to freeze damage caused by prolonged low temperatures.

To find out the extent of the damage, use your fingernail to gently scrape the bark on the branches and trunk, starting at the tips and working back toward the base of the tree, until you see green, healthy wood below the bark.

If all you see is brown dead wood, I’m afraid, the tree is lost.

If you do find healthy green wood, prune the tree back to that point and wait for it it revive, which it may.

Do NOT over water it.  It is unlikely that it needs a thorough watering every other day as you have been doing. (You may have made the damage worse by drowning the roots.)  Poke your finger deep into the soil and only if it is dry at that depth, will you need to water.

The tree has taken quite a beating and it may take weeks for you to see any new growth.  Sadly, the stressed tree may be a target for disease and insect damage before it is able to fully recover, so watch over it carefully and contact us again (with pictures) if you see any evidence of new problems.

The new growth may be weak and spindly, requiring careful pruning over the next few years.  For an excellent illustrated article on pruning and reviving seriously damaged Japanese Maples, published by the University of Missouri, click here.

I wish you luck with this project – a Japanese Maple can be a lovely element in your garden and worth trying to save.