January 1, 2013

Holding On

This winter the Japanese maple 'Bloodgood' has held onto its dried dead leaves.

While oaks and young beeches always hold their leaves through the winter, providing a flutter of interest when a breeze riffles through the bare woods, maples don't typically do that. They usually color up, put on a fall spectacle, then drop their leaves before December.

The 'Bloodgood' Acer palmatum outside my window always followed that pattern. But not this year.

It started to bother me as December came on. Something was not right. Those brown leaves shouldn't be hanging on like that. It looked so wrong.

The grass is still green, but this shot is actually from mid December, just before snow came.
Those leaves should be long gone and I should be looking at the
curving artistic empty branches of this Japanese maple.

Here is what I learned:

When a plant goes dormant before the enzymes that cause leaf drop have completed their work, the message to drop its leaves gets scrambled. The ordered process of leaf dieback followed by abscission fails.

Why did that happen? Autumn in Connecticut was not terribly cold or harsh this year, but we had two very brief but very hard freezes in early October, way before our typical first frost date. A sharp, hard dip into the 20s (F) for just an hour or two overnight.

The annuals all immediately went to mush, and the leaves on a few of the trees turned brown. I lamented in an earlier post that fall color in some of my specimen trees was kaput this year. Brown dead leaves, and no fall color. And then the dry leaves blew off after Halloween.

It happened to the Japanese maple too, but the dried leaves never blew off. They never got the enzyme message to loosen their hold and drop. Oops.

Bloodgood's best red color is actually in spring (here in April).
Then the foliage turns purple in summer, before returning
to glowing red in autumn, or at least in a normal autumn.

Here it is in mid summer when the leaves are a
 rich purple. As the weather gets hotter, the
purple washes out to a mahogany brown.

I don't think any harm is done, and eventually new foliage will push out the dead next spring. I hope.

In fact, after some snow and wind over Christmas, there are fewer leaves holding on now, although it still looks odd to see the brown crispy foliage that does remain against the white background.

Just when I think I know the seasonal patterns of my garden, a new wrinkle appears. I'm going to call this a garden "oops" --- not my fault, but clearly it is not what is supposed to happen. Epic enzyme fail.

You can read more garden oops posts at Joene's Garden. On the first of every month she sponsors Garden Oops (GOOPs) where we reveal the mistakes that happen (and that we cause) in the chaotic and unpredictable world we try to control outside.

34 comments:

  1. You just answered a question I had thought about regarding those leaves staying on the tree. This past year was an odd one weather-wise. It will be interesting to see what the new year brings.

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    1. Lisa, each year seems to bring oddities that we can not anticipate. This is the first year the maples behaved so oddly. I agree with you -- the coming year will be interesting!

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  2. Nothing beats starting out the new year by learning something new. I noticed the same thing going on in my garden this fall too. In fact both my Emperor I, Villa Taranto and both Orangeoloas are still holding on to a significant amount of dead leaves. Every year the weather tosses us gardeners a new curve ball. Fortunately we're a resilient bunch.

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    1. Sue, those two short hard freezes in early October went unremarked around here. They did not seem to be significant events, and there was so much other weather going on that got more notice. But those two freezes had a pretty big impact on the garden.

      I've seen an Orangeola but I am not familiar with Emperor I or Villa Taranto --- I hope to see some posts of them on your blog in the coming year!

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  3. Laurrie, I've noticed this with maples elsewhere and expected it had something to do with our early frosts. Thanks for doing the research that explains this phenomenon fully. And ... again, thanks for playing in the GOOPs sandbox.

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    1. Joene, it took me a while to figure out why they were holding leaves this year. I had to go back into photo archives to make sure the Japanese maples didn't always do this every year and I just hadn't noticed it before. Thanks for hosting --- it's always a kick to see what mistakes happen out there!

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  4. Good morning! This was an extremely interesting post and the photos are lovely! I have frequently seen this happen with the 'big japanese maple experiment' I've been involved in for a few years... an experiment that haven't concerns me as possibly being doomed to failure in our climate, but so far so good. Larry

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    1. Larry, Japanese maples are always a little iffy in northern climates, but who could be without them? And there are so many, each one unique. I grow two others in addition to this 'Bloodgood', but if I had more space . . .

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  5. I've noticed this and was wondering why the leaves remained. Thanks for the info.

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    1. James, I had not noticed it before. I had to check old photos from prior years to make sure Japanese maples didn't typically hold on to their leaves so long. I couldn't remember whether they did or not! Clearly it's an anomaly this year.

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  6. I've only recently learned about some deciduous trees keeping their leaves over winter so this was another new surprise to me. Wonderful information to have just in case it ever happens to me. Thanks for posting this.

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    1. Marguerite, certain trees keep their leaves until spring -- the oaks are the most visible. But it just didn't look right when it happened on this Japanese maple!

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  7. The same thing happened to my maples (in Texas) this year, too! I thought it might have something to do with the fact that we had a frost, but then after that we had several 86 degree days and no rain. I thought maybe the leaves just shriveled up because it was so hot when it was supposed to be cold. Confused trees and confused gardener. Just when we think we've got this gardening thing down, we realize we've got a lot to learn, don't we? Happy New Year!!

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    1. Toni, apparently the enzymes in maples get confused by a variety of factors, not just a sharp cold snap at the wrong time. We certainly do have much to learn about all the oddities of gardening!

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  8. I have an oak that doesn't lose its leaves until spring. The new leaf buds swell and force the old leaves out. That's when I know for sure spring is on its way. Just think of the leaves as extra fertilizer for your soil just waiting to drop! :o)

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    1. Tammy, I am not as worried about the health of the Japanese maple now that I understand what is causing it to hold its leaves. You're right -- more fertilizer as the leaves come off in spring!

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  9. That happens to my trees a lot. Now I know why! Thanks for a very informational post!

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    1. HolleyGarden, I guess it must happen a lot, but I had never noticed trees holding their leaves when they shouldn't before.

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  10. Replies
    1. And the best to you for the new year!

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  11. I planted a flowering dogwood around the first of April just before a really hard frost. The tree had been shipped from Oregon so it was completely unprepared. Result: one dead dogwood. And it was such a warm March!

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    1. Jason, it is those one-off brief events that can take a toll, even when the season as a whole is favorable. Frustrating!

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  12. Your tree is lovely! Very interesting about the enzyme failure. I have an oak tree that never loses its brown leaves until the new leaves appear in spring. That tree must not produce the enzyme at all! Also, I loved the snowy winter scenes in your last post! Happy New Year! I look forward to following your blog in 2013.

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    1. Deborah, thanks. Oaks are programmed to keep their leaves, but it must be the same enzyme and abscission process that all trees go through -- just that oaks have a different switch timer : ) Happy New Year to you.

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  13. I'm so glad you explained this ... my bloodgood is still holding on to some leaves too, although they are still red. It has usually lost all of it's leaves by now. I wondered what might be happening. We've had very erratic temps here this fall through winter. Lots of warm days and then sudden cold snaps. I must say your maple looks a lot happier than mine. I selfishly grow it in the shade of the oaks. It would be happier in a northern climate but it does pretty well and provides me a lot of joy with its gorgeous color and graceful habits.

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    1. Cat, Japanese maples are sensitive and they apparently react to heat and frost and temperature swings that don't faze other trees. But their beauty makes up for all that! In your hot climate, the maple probably would only do well in the shade of your oaks.

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  14. This shows how connected we are to our gardens, our land and nature. When something is amiss, we notice and investigate. Thanks for the useful info, I believe the same thing happened to my Japanese Maple :)

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    1. Rosemary, it was such a funny feeling --- all November and December I kept looking out at that tree and it just did not look right. You're right, we are attuned to something being amiss in the intimate landscapes of our gardens, even when we aren't sure what it is.

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  15. Laurrie, the weather is often very strange and trees respond differently on it.My trees such as buckthorn also bothers me how it reacts to the weather changes.

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    1. Nadezda, some trees seem to be able to shake off anything, and they thrive no matter what. The Japanese maples are a little fussy I think! I don't have a buckthorn, and didn't realize it could be sensitive too.

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  16. This is interesting, Laurrie; I had no idea that the weather could affect leaf drop in Japanese maples before. It's good to know it's normal and not something to worry about. I always enjoy your gardening "Oops," and it's reassuring to know even Mother Nature makes some sometimes.

    Loved all your snowy images in your last post! We're still waiting for an appreciable snowfall here, though I don't really look forward to having to shovel it. Wishing you a very Happy New Year!

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    1. Rose, thanks. It was surprising to me too that nature's systems get scrambled like this. Always learning!

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  17. I was looking for an answer to why all my Japanese Maples held their dead leaves this year (2014) in N. CA, and found this post.I found some comfort in seeing all the J. Maples around town did the same. We had the coldest two weeks in early Dec. that I can remember since I've lived here so that must have caused the "tree confusion". Thnks for the explanation.

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    1. You're welcome! This past fall (autumn of 2013) we did not have any early hard freezes and the Japanese maples colored nicely, then dropped their leaves as they are supposed to. Now, in snowy winter, they are bare.

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