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.
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.
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.