Q: Most of my Japanese maples are still full of dead leaves. They never exfoliated in the fall to leave bare branches. Will this affect new growth in the spring? Should I just let them be?
A: We have received several questions about Japanese maples that are still holding on to brown leaves that didn’t drop last fall. Some crapemyrtles also have held their leaves during the winter. This issue has been reported in several areas of Maryland, which suggests it is due to an environmental factor. An unusually warm autumn followed by a quick cold snap likely interfered with the trees’ normal winter preparation processes.
As the days shorten in the fall, trees go through a series of biochemical and physical changes to prepare for winter survival. In deciduous trees, this includes the development of an abscission zone of cells where the branches connect to the base of leaf stems (petioles). A layer of cells essentially seals off the branches to protect them from water loss, and then the leaves are shed from the tree. We suspect the fall cold snap interrupted this process and normal leaf abscission did not occur in some trees.
Some types of trees naturally do tend to retain dead leaves during the winter. American beeches and many oaks exhibit this trait, called leaf marcescence. This occurs most often on juvenile trees. It may be a strategy to protect buds from winter damage or to discourage deer browsing. Trees may also wait until spring to shed their leaves, thus providing a fresh source of nutrient-rich organic matter to the root zone where soils are otherwise poor. The exact reasons for leaf marcesence haven’t been determined completely.
There is nothing you need to do for your Japanese maple at this time. If your tree was otherwise healthy, new growth will emerge in the spring and the old brown leaves will drop off eventually.
Sources and Additional Resources
By Christa Carignan, Coordinator, Digital Horticulture Education, Home & Garden Information Center
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