Is My Japanese Maple Dying?

Michael J. McGroarty
Perry, Ohio Copyright 2011

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Japanese maples are really a lot hardier and easier to grow than most people give them credit for.  I often get asked; “Is my Japanese maple dying?’ and usually when somebody asks me that, their tree is more than likely in trouble.  They’ve noticed that something is changing with their tree.

Usually leaves turning brown around the edges, brown spots on the leaves, or maybe leaves falling from the tree during the growing season.  Brown spots on the leaves during the growing season can be caused from a number of different things, and for the most part none them are of serious concern.  Usually brown spots appear because the leaves got wet when the sun was out and that can cause a small burn on a leaf with a droplet of water on the leaf.

Brown edges can  be a sign of a tree that de-hydrated.  But often times, late in the summer, especially with the dissectum varieties, the edges of the leaves turn brown just from the extreme heat and the wind blowing across the leaves.  It’s a lot like holding a blow dryer to the leaves.  Does this mean the roots are dry and need more water?  That depends on how much rain you’ve had in your area prior to this happening.  It is my experience that this drying of the edges of the leaves is just something that happens and seems to happen to most of my dissectum Japanese maples every year starting around late July.  It’s certainly not something I get concerned about.

Now if all of the leaves on your Japanese maple are turning brown and falling off, you have a serious problem.  If your tree has only been planted for a short time there are four things that I’d look for immediately.

1.  Have you been watering the tree as needed.  Trees that have only been planted a few weeks or even a few months should be watered once or twice weekly, but it’s important to check to see how moist the roots are before you water.  The soil should be moist and cool to the touch, not powdery dry.  But the soil should not stay soaking wet all the time.

2.  How wet are the roots and or the soil around the roots?  Japanese maples do not like wet feet.  They don’t like standing water around their roots for very long at all.  When you water the water that you apply should drain away within an hour or so and not linger around the root zone of your plant.  If you have heavy, wet, clay soil that does not drain well you should plant your tree with the entire root ball buried in the ground.  The root ball needs to be covered with soil, but you should raise the bed so at least half of the root ball is above the grade of your bed.  This is only true if you have clay soil that does not drain well.

3.  Is your tree planted too deep?  Even if you have really good soil that drains well, the top of the root ball should be at least one inch above grade.  Make sure the root ball is covered with soil so you actually have a slight mound over the root ball so excess amounts of water are shed away from the tree.  There should not be more than one inch of soil up on the stem of the tree.  If you have the tree planted too deep and there is three or four inches of soil on the stem of the tree it is planted too deeply and should be raised immediately.

4.  How much have you fertilized your tree?  Japanese maples don’t like and cannot use a great deal of nitrogen fertilizer.  It’s much safer to mix rotted cow manure (bagged) into the hole as you plant your tree and not fertilize at all.  If you really feel the need to fertilize a Japanese maple, use something organic, something low in nitrogen.

Is it possible that your Japanese maple is suffering from some dreaded disease and dying?  Probably not, but just in case visit this page:  Japanese Maple Diseases.


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32 thoughts on “Is My Japanese Maple Dying?

  1. Stacy on said:

    My Japanese Maple started pushing all new leaves, but as soon as they opened they dried up and died. We have had the tree for about 7 years and its routine has not changed. Any suggestions? Should we take it out right away, or what? Thanks for any help.

    • Mike on said:


      This is how you test to see if a plant, or a branch on a plant has died. Just scratch the bark of your plants with your finger nail. If the tissue below the bark is green and firm your plants are fine. If the tissue is brown and mushy that part of the plant is dead.

  2. Julie on said:

    Everything I’ve read on the internet including here tends to talk about not enough water. However, here in Central Florida we’ve had an unusual amount of rain almost daily for about 1 month now. It’s the beginning of July and this small tree was planted 2 months ago. Was doing so well, sprouting new leaves and looking wonderful. Just today I’ve noticed the drying leaves. I once gave it some liquid Miracle Grow, but that’s all it’s had. Is it too hot here you think? I’ve seen them growing in Central Florida everywhere. Mine is in full sun. Any suggestions? Shade it somehow?

    • Mike on said:


      Shade for sure.

  3. prue scurr on said:

    My tree is about 15 years old, and was absolutely gorgeous until recently. the leaves all dried up, this worked it’s way round the tree until at the moment there is only one branch left ok. This has got seeds under the leaves. The wood of the tree seems dead, no green under the bark. What should I do?
    Many thanks for your help.

    • Mike on said:


      Not much you can do. This is how you test to see if a plant, or a branch on a plant has died. Just scratch the bark of your plants with your finger nail. If the tissue below the bark is green and firm your plants are fine. If the tissue is brown and mushy that part of the plant is dead. If the branches are dead remove them.

  4. Teri dewey on said:

    I have a twenty three year old Japanese Maple that shades a small pond. This spring about 10% of the tree still has the brown leaves left on from last years foliage. I have never seen this before on this tree.
    Last year we lost a large branch from the tree, we removed the dead branch. The section that remains of that area has no brown leaves but has new buds. Should I assume this tree is in trouble. The tree may have had too much water from pond leaking. Leaking under control now. Is this tree salvageable.

  5. Brendan Nguyen on said:

    I already had too much of nitrogen fertilizer for my tree. All the leaves are now turning brown around the edges and falling. What should I do to safe the tree? Look like it is dying. Please help. Thank you.

  6. Rachel Widman on said:

    I’ve had my Japanese Red Maple for about 5 years now. Every year, it has bloomed beautifully. It is mid-July and it’s branches are completely bare and the bark does not have the red on it. I’ve scratched some of the bark, it’s not mushy brown. It is very light tan, it looks healthy. I’m not sure what to do at this point, I don’t want to dig it up. Any suggestions??

  7. Becky Helmer on said:

    On July 4, 2014 we had planted a 25 gallon red leaf maple. It gets full sun all day (here in TX about 95-97 degrees) and seemed to be doing fine with watering as directed. My husband put down some grass fertilizer with a chicken poop base and watered it into the grass. After 4-5 days I’ve notices the leaves on the tree are edged all around like they’ve been burned or scorched all around as high as I can see all the leaves seem affected. Could it be the fertilizer got into the root system? Or is it because of the heat? Help, I paid way too much to lose this tree.If it is the fertilizer, what do I do?
    Thanks for any assistance.

    • Sunny on said:

      I also have the same situation in Dallas. Mine gets some sun but not a whole lot but noticed that the edges are getting brown. From what I’ve read so far, its not abnormal and can be due to the heat. Some suggested using WiltStop. However, I am going to stop watering it too much and see what happens now that the weather is slowly cooling.

  8. Mike on said:

    I live in Central Ohio. Last fall, our landscaper planted a Crimson Queen in one of our front yard beds. It never did bloom any leaves in the spring, but there are what appear to be dried buds on the ends of the branches. Also the trunk bark split (facing southwest as discussed often happens). Otherwise the tree structure feels firm and the flesh under bark is absolutely with a distinct green ring. We pulled the split bark off the trunk so it could heal as advised by our local garden nursery that sells these trees. Is it possible for the tree to be asleep or dormant? It’s now June and the branches are barren, but otherwise the tree does not feel like it is dead. There are a couple of very small sprouts very low on the trunk but these might be below the graft line, I’m not sure. Either way these sprouts seem to indicate some signs of life. Thoughts????

  9. Dunareanu Adi on said:

    My maple is about 15 years old. Last year I replanted the tree about 3 metres from de old place. In spring of next year the new leaves are smaller then usually and now the many small tiny branches and leaves turns into red (from dark green colour) and die. It is a desease or a lack of nutrients or wet in exces ?

  10. Shannon B on said:

    I bought a japaneze maple late last summer & planted it. Seemed ok, but has done nothing this year. The trunk shows green thru but a short distance up the trunk, the color changes. When i scrape, I don’t see green. The branches are really dark in color. The seem somewhat pliable but are not green inside. Also, not mush either. I can’t hardly scrape my nail through the base of branches. Any suggestions?

  11. Amanda Scroggs on said:

    My Japanese Maple was planted 8 months ago and was doing fine. Then it rained a tremendous amount over a period of a month. The ground around the tree has remained soggy. The leaves have dried up. Any suggestions?

  12. Jessica on said:

    I have a new japanese maple and ever since I have had it (just a few months) the leaves have shriveled up, and are starting to fall off. Reading this it is likely that I have over watered. Is there anything I can do to reverse the situation or it is too late?!!!

  13. Robin Starr on said:

    I have a Japanese maplevthat all leaves are turning brown…im desparate…how can I send u a picture to help me…please respond asap…..we are north of greenvilletx about 40 miles is 90 to 100 degrees everyday…imvwstering twice a day really good

  14. Andrew M on said:

    The date is august 11th.

    We just bought a home that has a 30 year old giant japanese maple. We are experiencing a 4 year drought and turned down the drip system from 30 to 15 minutes every 2-3 days.

    However almost all the leaves dried up and fell off within 1 week. Lower branches are fairing slightly better, but still don’t look healthy. Seed pods are visible. We have increased watering back to previous levels, and have added a thin layer of new mulch.

    The branches and trunk are fairly green still.

    • Theresa on said:

      This exact same thing happened to me this summer with our two 30 year old trees.

      We have been experiencing drought and record hot summer temps in California. We stopped watering our lawn, not realizing that this was the tree’s only water source. The leaves have been drying up & falling off all summer even after we started watering them again.

      We have lost over half of the tree it seems, wondering if the branches will re-sprout leaves next year, or are they dead now?

      Very scary, would hate to loose these beautiful trees…

      • Mike on said:


        It really depends on how damaged the tissue under the bark of the tree is. This is how you test to see if a plant, or a branch on a plant has died. Just scratch the bark of your plants with your finger nail. If the tissue below the bark is green and firm your plants are fine. If the tissue is brown and mushy that part of the plant is dead.

        Not much you can do but do this test and see what happens come spring.

  15. Makala Thomas on said:

    Hello, I started with a baby size Japanese maple about 3 or 4r yrs ago and it has been doing beautifully. I just recently had it transplanted to a different location in the yard (early Aug.) and after a little over a week most of the leaves have dried up and fell off. ; o Based on some of your information provided, I’m not sure if my plant is over or under watered or if it was replanted too deep in the ground. Any suggestions/assistance would be much appreciated. Thank you.

    Makala T.

    • Mike on said:


      Moving it in August is probably what caused the problems. You can only move Japanese maples and most other plants when they are dormant.

  16. Tamara on said:

    I have two Japanese Maples about 10-15 years old. They have dead branches on the top of the tree with green leaves toward the bottom. Is the tree dehydrated?

    • Mike on said:


      This could be a sign of the trees drying out over the summer if this damage occurred late in the growing season. Or it could be damage from last winter. Wait until spring and remove any branches that don’t produce leaves.

  17. Mimi Ross on said:

    We bought 4 rather small Japanese Maples 2 weeks ago. They are all different varieties and all looked very healthy when we bought them. We have not planted them in the ground yet, but intend to soon. One was a Waterfall Japanese Maple and all of it’s leave have turned brown and shriveled up. They have not fallen off, but this one plant looks like it is struggling. We noticed this last week, 1 week after we bought it. The other 3 look just like they did when we bought them. Any ideas on why this one would looks like it does while the others seem fine? They have all been in mostly shade, with 1-2 hours of full sunlight a day.

    • Mike on said:


      It sounds like that one didn’t get enough water. Plants in containers need to be watered daily.

  18. cree on said:

    I bought Japanese maple just 3 weeks ago and soon leaves start to dry, and now not much leaves left and can’t to understand what is wrong, cause it don’t get too much sun light and what is most odd that soil is always very moist, drainage is good but how soil don’t dry up, i repoted it from bonsai pot to a much bigger, changed other soil but the same :/ i didn’t give water for more then week it still very moist

    • Mike on said:


      You need to lighten that soil up. Add lots of perlite, or plant the tree in the ground. They are usually happiest in the ground.

  19. Katie on said:

    I planted a young Laceleaf in my yard this summer. The leaves are looking scorched and some branches on top are bare, but I have watered regularly & soul feels just as it should, cool and moist. Any idea what could be the problem?

    • Mike on said:


      It’s not unusual for a young laceleaf to show some stress at the end of the season. Just give it some time and if really young maybe create some shade of it during the heat of the summer.

  20. Ed S. on said:

    It’s Fall in the NW and our Bloodgood maple has beautiful red foliage and yet half of the trees leaves are normal looking where the other half is curled up. Is this normal or if not, does someone know what it could be? Last winter, we removed the landscape fabric the previous owner installed at the base, plus the 8-10″ of dirt & mulch they had applied on top of the fabric. Madness. I realize we greatly disturbed the roots but they were buried as well as the trunk flare upwards of 10-12″.

    Our former place, the previous owned had done the same and the leaves had turned brown in the Fall rather than the typical reds, oranges. It took approximately 3 years to recover once we had removed the soil off the trunk and root ball to where it should be.

    Any advice is appreciated.

    • Mike on said:


      I can’t honestly say except to say wait until spring to see how the tree looks. One of my Japanese maples completely defoliated early, but just one side. It concerns me, but only thing I can do is wait and see.

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