Japanese Maple Winter Damage

Michael J. McGroarty
Perry, Ohio Copyright 2011

How much cold weather, or severely cold temperatures will Japanese Maples tolerate before they suffer winter damage?

1.  Japanese maples can be sensitive to extreme cold and being that I am in zone 5 I know that there will be severe winters when damage will occur.  Makes no difference to me.  I so love these splendid trees that I am willing to take that chance.  I’ve been involved with the landscaping and nursery industry for about forty years now, and only one winter that I can remember did I see what I’d consider to be serious damage to Japanese Maples.

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We had one of those winters where it got down below zero F. and stayed there for too long.  That winter a lot of plants here in northeast Ohio were damaged.  Things like well established privet and hollies were devastated.  Some Japanese maples were damaged as well, and this is what I observed.  There were two, well established Acer palmatum dissectum (lace-leaf weeping JM) that I saw with severe damage.  My sister and brother-in-law had a large dissectum in their backyard that a few years earlier I actually rescued from an old dilapidated house that was about to be burned.  That was a beautiful tree that was only about 48″ high but had to be at least 10′ wide.  I’m sad to report that their beloved tree died completely that winter.

This tree, the one shown below, was on the back corner of my house and suffered severe damage.  But you’d never know that looking at this photo, which was actually taken several years after that devastating winter.

Laceleaf Japanese Red Maple

Acer palmatum dissectum-lace-leaf Japanese Red Maple

The story behind this tree.

When I first landscaped our house in 1989 to say that I didn’t have much money would have been an understatement.  But I wanted a lace-leaf weeping Japanese maple in my landscape.  So I went to one of the local wholesale nurseries to see what they had.  All of the trees that Bill showed me were at $150.00  or more and I really couldn’t afford that.  But off the side I saw a small tree that was pretty much broken in half.  Half of the tree was gone and left was a large gaping wound.  I looked at Bill and said; “Whaddya want for that one?  You certainly can’t sell it.”  He said; “twenty bucks.”

I handed him a $20 bill and headed home with my sad, sad looking little tree.  It was really a small tree to start with before it got damaged in shipping, so the piece that I had left was about 24″ tall and scary looking.  I planted it with the wound to the back and figured it deserved a chance.

It took a few years, but finally with carefully pruning and a lot of patience my little hobo of a tree started to take shape.  Before I knew it that little tree had become a breathtaking specimen that caught everybody’s eye.  I was so proud and happy with that tree.  I just loved looking at it every chance I got.

Then along came Mr. severely cold winter.  It was so cold for so long that when spring arrived I realized that almost all of the bark on the stem of my tree had actually been frozen right off the tree.  I was sick.  The bark literally fell right off the tree exposing the cambium layer.  I knew the tree couldn’t survive.  And I also knew there was nothing I could do but wait.  The tree leafed out as if everything was fine, then suddenly it started to fail.  The buds and small branches were not damaged so as far as they knew all was well.  But before long they couldn’t get water or nutrition from the root system and the tree started looking really bad.  There was one little strip of bark going up the back side of the tree that did not come lose.  But it wasn’t much.

The tree did not die, but it looked terrible.  Next spring it was a little better, and by the third year it took off like crazy and was once again my pride and joy.  Sorry for the long winded story, but I think it’s important that you understand what can happen, and that any tree that has not completely failed has a chance.

A few more observations from that winter.

I was more than a little concerned when I saw both of those large trees severely damaged because the summer before I had landscaped 20 or 30 homes, maybe more, and on each of those jobs I planted a small dissectum maple.  And I had promised my customers a one year guarantee.  I was just waiting for the phone calls to start coming in.

Amazingly enough, not one of those small trees suffered damage.  And they were quite small.  I thought for sure that the severe cold from that winter would have done them in.  Not the case.

What I learned.

Even though I have no scientific proof as to why the larger trees were damaged but all of those smaller Japanese maples were not, the only conclusion that I could come to is that for some reason the bark on the younger trees was more elastic.  Of course since they were so much smaller it is possible that snow might have been piled up around them, and we know that snow is an excellent insulator.  But I suspect they were not all snow covered and none of those small trees were damaged.  So I’m still clinging to my elastic bark theory.

Since then I have been more comfortable acquiring and planting small Japanese maples in my landscape and so far all has gone well.  And now that I am growing thousands of them in the nursery, outside in a field, this is certainly being put to the test.  I am prepared for the day when I do experience some winter damage.  But I am comfortable thinking that even if that does happen, many of my trees will bounce back.

Only time will tell.

See this page about providing winter protection for Japanese Maples.

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14 thoughts on “Japanese Maple Winter Damage

  1. colleen on said:

    My beautiful Japanese Maple tree was bright red before my family cut out scrubs that surrounded my tree. Unknowingly I believe they cut some of its roots. Today, four days post ‘pruning’ its leaves are browning rapidly. I have cried all afternoon and pray my tree is lost forever. We have had alot of rain the past few days in Connecticut. Your guidance would be appreciated.

    • Mike on said:

      Colleen, doing root damge this time of year could traumatize the tree, but it would have to be significant root damage. Are you sure the tree didn’t get hit with a heavy frost? Many of mine got frosted just a few days ago and look really bad. But that kind of damage should be temporary. Not much you can do, maybe shade the tree for a week or so and keep it damp and cool unless it’s too large for that. All you can do is wait. Don’t expect much to change fast.

  2. Linda on said:

    Hi Mike, I live in New England-RI and just got hit with the BLIZZARD of 2013. I love my yard, trees and flowers.I’m so upset about my Japanese maple tree. The snow covered it and caused two of the major branches to split and brake,leaving only two thinner ones.This tree means so much to me because my fiancee and I planted it in our front yard and he just passed away in November after suffering from cancer. We always took pride in our landscaping and enjoyed spending time outdoors admiring our precious trees.Can this maple be saved?

    • Mike on said:

      Chances are it can be saved. It’s part of your life, and at one in another in life we all get wounded. Don’t try and patch the tree back together. Just remove the broken branches cleanly, trimming up the wounds so there is no loose bark, taper the edges of wound so water easily runs off the wounded area and doesn’t collect in the wound. Trim up what’s left of the tree so it has some shape to it, and watch as the tree replenishes itself. It will take two to three years to really fill in, but I think you’ll be amazed by the come back that it can make.

      • Linda on said:

        Thank you Mike, I’ll do just that…nurse it back to good help and watch it thrive with a lot of help from nature.I’ll keep you updated.

  3. Laura Schultz on said:

    Our Japanese maple hangs over our pond and is surrounded by rock walls. this is our second one. The first was eaten under the snow around the base of the tree. So when we got our second one, we got the plastic thingy that goes around the base so the critters could not chew it. The snow melted last week in massachusetts and we could see serious damage was again done to our poor little Japanese maple. This time, they ate the branches and not the base. It looks severely damaged and I don’t think it will survive. What can we do to prevent this? Should it be wrapped in hardware cloth? I am a wildlife rehabilitator so my husband blames me :(. I think it is voles that do the damage but he thinks it is chipmunks. What do you think?

    • Mike on said:


      My guess would be chipmunks or field mice. You probably don’t want to use poison, but if you do, they make weather reistant mouse bait, but make sure you read the label, it is a poison. Or you can try painting the tree with hot sauce mixed with Wilt Proof.

  4. Tasha Forrest on said:

    I planted my first tree – Japanese maple, a small one about five feet tall. It did wonderfully the first year although this past winter it was very cold and it was really hard on it. It got its leaves very late spring and only the branches that are about a foot from the ground grew leaves, the middle and top of tree have no leaves. I can’t tell if the branches are dead, they had small tan branches with buds that never grew. I haven’t pruned it for fear of hurting it, please give advice on what I can do to help it recover

  5. Lety on said:

    After this long cold winter in Chicago, our Japanese Maple did not do well. It looks bare still in July, but has started to grow some branches on the bottom of the trunk. Should I cut all the top off and let the tree start to grow new? Should I cut back some the tree to shape it a little smaller for this year and will it return next year? Sad to see all the flowers in the front yard landscape looking pretty and our poor Japanese Maple looking like it’s still winter.

  6. Jan on said:

    Our japanese maple really took a hit this last winter (2014) as others in our area did. There were many dead branches underneath and old leaves that hung on through winter. Now more and more leaves look like they are dying and the branches don’t look well at all. It started getting new growth but, I think some of that is dying as well. My thoughts are to let it go and see what happens next year. I removed much of the dead from underneath in the spring and cut out some dead branches, did not want to shock the tree. It really looks pitiful right now. Any suggestions?
    Thanks, Jan

  7. Jose Londono on said:

    Hi Mike,
    I live in NYC and own an apartment with a roof garden. Needless to say everything is in containers, very large containers. I have had my beautiful Japanese Maple for well over ten years. It has survived some very cold winters but in the spring it always came back. Well this winter was long and severe. My maple still hasn’t leaved out and it is now May 9. I am starting to worry. I’ve been checking it everyday and babying it. I make sure to keep the soil moist and even went to Lancaster PA last week to visit my in laws and purchased dehydrated cow manure to add to it. I am trying everything possible but still no leaves. What should I do. I’ve thought of getting a larger container and repotting it. Please help. I don’t want it to die.

  8. Jose Londono on said:

    Hi Mike,

    Its Jose again about the Japanese Maple in NYC. Forgot to say thank you for your expert advice.

  9. Paul on said:

    Mike, I’m in Kirtland Hills Ohio and I have a Japanese maple that seems to have been damaged in the winter. The lower branches are fine but the top layer of the crown isn’t leafing out and the tips are dead. I’m worried I’ve lost the top branches. Do I prune those off now? Looks like everything above the snow died. Thanks.

  10. Heather Carney on said:

    The extended freezing weather here in the northern lower peninsula of Michigan did in my trumpet vine, quite a bit of my wisteria, and 3/4 of my Japanese maple! The branch that has life is a side branch. I assume I have to trim off the main trunk above that branch, and if so, what should I put on the wound? (This is a 12′ tall tree I’ve had for many years)

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