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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11 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.

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