What's Coming Up Issue 181:
a special one-subject issue, with this summary:
Continue to wait on these trees that are replacing all
their frost damaged foliage. DON'T PRUNE YET.
Their push of growth is not done. What seems dead may only be slow,
and is salvageable. Give them another week.
What's Up at Maple revival time!
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Special must-do this week
Frosted tree tapped its reserves, now needs our
My Japanese maple took such a hit from the frost last
month. It dropped pretty much all of its leaves. I figured I'd wait
and see if it grew back. Would fertilizer help? Someone said to
give it lots of water. I sure hope it's not dead. - M.P.
For Japanese maples and other trees hit hard three weeks ago,
patience was all that they needed from us. During the first weeks
after that kind of leaf loss, the ball is entirely in the plant's
court. Later -- NOW! -- as new leaves and shoots
appear, we can help by watering, being vigilant
and (maybe) fertilizing. Down the road as the replacement growth
matures, we can prune out dead and weak wood.
After a sudden leaf loss, cells in branches capable of making
new shoots switch quickly into a high gear. They will push out new
growth from where leaves were lost and even from under the bark.
This growth is built entirely from starches stored over the
previous few years in those twigs and branches. We can't inject
anything into the wood, and we can't add anything via the soil
because nothing is coming to that wood from the roots (See Portrait of a virtue). No worries, however.
A tree always stores extra starch. It has reserves even after a
major loss. The tree that's been healthy in the past, has the best
After three to four weeks, we see new growth. As those new
shoots reach the light, photosynthesis resumes. That restarts the
"draw" on the water conducting system, so roots begin to absorb
water and nutrients, and start growing again. Right
now it's critical that we keep the soil moist.
Also, fertilizer may help. Best for this use: Something
water soluble in several weak applications. Look for fish-,
seaweed-, or acid-loving plant products.
Why this tree or branch, but not all?
Frost damage is complex to the point of mystery.
Some trees were hit hard by the spring frost. Many Japanese
maples lost all their leaves.
(Not only maples were involved: Other trees and shrubs were
zapped and are now starting over. This issue's information applies
to azalea, cherry, ginkgo, mulberry, yellowwood, etc.)
Right: This is Nature at her most mischievous. She coaxed
this red leaf upright Japanese maple -- and many other trees --
into early leaf with a precocious spring, then killed off all their
foliage in a frost. However, the tree's far from dead. (You
might want to take steps to keep it from being killed!) Having
defoliated so early in the year, it may even recoup all losses by
the end of the growing season.
Right: Other trees took partial hits, keeping
foliage on inner and lower limbs or on parts of their canopy
shielded by overhanging trees. The sides of this tree may have
escaped the frost because they extend over loose, open soil that
was "breathing out" warm air during the night. The damage occurred
on limbs overhanging the junipers, where the ground's warmth may
have been trapped beneath the evergreen boughs.
Below: This tree was spared by its genes, proximity to
bigger tree,s and the warmth trapped within the open porch. Damage
occurred mostly to limbs hanging over the paved walkway.
Is it dead? Sure looks dead.
Deciduous trees survive complete defoliation every fall, so
don't declare such a tree dead just because it has lost leaves.
Instead, check a branch for flexibility and scratch an expendable
twig to look for moist green tissue in the cambium -- the
bud-producing layer below the bark.
Below: Scratch a twig
with your fingernail, or...
...snip off a section looking for moist green just under the
Signs of life
Watch for new growth, remembering that it may be obscured by
dangling dead foliage.
Right: This bud formed where a twig meets a larger limb. It
formed on the branch collar in advance of any new buds on the twig
itself because starch content is still high here in the collar.
Starch within the twig is depleted because it was tapped to fuel
Buds may yet erupt on the twig, once remaining starch in the
twig is shifted and concentrated where it can support that
Hard-hit trees make the prettiest comeback because complete
defoliation promotes a stronger growth response.
If you have a half-hurt tree water and watch it, too. Its net
loss is or will be equal to the defoliated tree
We know quite a bit about maples' use of starch because it is
not only a plant fuel but a food crop -- dissolved into the sap, it
becomes the sugar in maple syrup.
Just as other trees' sap can be made into sugar, what we know of
maple starch accumulation, use and movement can be applied to other
Now you know what to expect
...we bet if you look now at a tree 3-4 weeks out of frost
damage, you will be delighted about finding lots of spots and fresh
shoots like these on your tree:
Portrait of a virtue: Why
we wait to help these trees
At the time a tree's leaves are suddenly killed,
there's nothing we can do to help. Some things we might do, can
hurt. At this time, patience truly is a virtue. We wait.
Roots cease to absorb water and nutrients within hours of
some even die back. So the tree has no immediate need for water
A leafless tree is not drawing
moisture from the soil,
so repeated watering may make the soil soggy. More roots will
die if the soil becomes waterlogged. Feel the soil first, and water
only if the soil is dry at finger depth.
Fertilizer does not stimulate
After a plant itself "decides" to push new growth based on
light, temperature and availability of starch stored in its wood,
fertilizer might then support that growth.
A tree may use its old leaves for their starch.
Some of the starch to produce new shoots and leaves will be
withdrawn from dead leaves' stem bases. So don't pull off dead
leaves. Let the tree reabsorb what it can. The leaves will fall
when they dry.
Don't remove branch tips,
because the dormant buds at the tips of branches are a tree's
most effective directors of new growth. Although some of the tree's
branches may die as a result of the defoliation, you can't predict
which ones. So hold off pruning until the tree's new growth shows
you what's too weak to re-leaf.
Where did that article go? Gang way, we've done some spring
If you're looking for something you saw a week ago in our
What's Up news, it's still on the site but may have moved
when we stashed the winter topics from Issues 167 - 173 to make way
for spring. Do a Search for a key word or go to
Ensemble Weekly Editions, select Winter or
Late Winter and click from the index of any issue.
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