January 16, 2013

My Suicidal Tree

Does this tree want to live? Does it want to be in my garden? Because, you know, it's not giving me much encouragement.

It is willfully, frequently and I think suicidally trying to come apart.

It is a weeping Japanese maple, Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Crimson Queen'. Every winter it splits apart at major intersections. It does not simply drop branches or lose limbs. It cracks up in the middle with a very specific intent to kill itself.

The first damage was fixed last year with a stainless steel bolt, and it saved the tree, since both halves of the dissected trunk leafed out last summer and the tree looked fine. The bark is already starting to grow over the bolt. I took a major branch off below the wound, but that was to limb it up for looks.

The bolted trunk is the major stem, but now, this winter, the largest branch that arches to make the canopy has cracked. More bolt surgery is needed to hold this latest split together. And you can see a dark wound where a large branch tore off below the split branch as well.

The site of the torn branch needs to be cleaned up. I have to cut off that ragged piece. The callus that has formed to seal the edges looks healthy, though.

Are weeping Japanese maples inherently defective? Are they overbred, over-modified plant oddities like dogs that have health problems because of highly selective breeding? I wonder.

This tree is gorgeous, and I am sure it was bred long ago for its weeping habit and contorted branches. I love it in its spot in front of my house. But it seems to have been developed to fall apart.

You wouldn't know from these pictures last spring that the entire trunk was held together with hardware.

It fills the square in front of the open porch. Later in the season I pruned it quite a bit to reveal the curvy trunk and branch structure, although the steel hardware, healing wounds, and shorn branch collars didn't look that great when exposed.

But does this tree want to be here?

It weeps, and that seems melancholy. It is trying to kill itself, and that seems alarming.

I'm starting to feel very bad about bolting it back together all the time against its will.

38 comments:

  1. Your dark humour here is interesting. I was chuckling as I read this post :) I think it was just threathening; like someone who makes a half hearted attempt to slash his wrist :(

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    1. Stiletto, I hope you are right. It really is a beautiful tree if it would just stop making these attempts to crack up and fall apart!

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  2. Maybe you should put it out of it's misery. This opens another whole can of worms. Like a friend asked me once when I was trying to save a plant that really didn't like it's location in my garden...Don't you believe in euthanasia?

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    1. Lisa, I can't actually get rid of it. It's too beautiful in summer, and the wounds are hidden when the leaves come out. sigh.

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  3. Is the weight of the snow the culprit? It is a beautiful tree! I think it wants to live, as evidenced by accepting the bolts and repairing itself. I don't think I could remove it, until it was truly dead.

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    1. Deborah, it is the snow that is breaking this tree apart, but it is not under the eaves, it's just regular snowfall amounts that are breaking the trunk apart.

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  4. Laurrie, I think it's a very nice with red leaves tree!
    Sorry, it's ill.
    if you cut it to the stump will it grow again?

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    1. Nadezda, It might regrow from a stump, but for a specimen tree in the front of my house, I would rather buy a nicely formed, mature tree if I had to replace it.

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  5. Laurrie, I understand the desire to keep a beautiful tree, but this one would be long gone in my garden. Those V's (trunk and branch) are destined to split when the tops get too heavy; eliminating them when the tree is young woulda, coulda been the way to prune.

    Nah, I don't think Japanese maples are inherently weak (love the dog comparison); I have some good-sized ones, and the only one that split was a gift tree with a V trunk.

    I know you don't want to do it, but I say it anyway: Put this tree out of your misery.

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    1. Lee, aaack, really? I was waiting for your judgement on this situation, as I knew you'd have an objective eye.

      I did not end up bolting the latest split after all -- yesterday I took the whole branch off, which completely opened up the arching part of the top canopy. It looks way more open and horizontal now, and better than my timid pruning had produced thus far (this aggressive shaping should have been done when it was a sapling, I know!!) But the tree still has a V trunked shape.

      I want to see it leaf out next spring with the more open look. Then I'll decide. But I do have your good advice haunting my thoughts. End the misery. And replace it with a ----- ?

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    2. With another Japanese maple, say a coral bark (Acer palamatum 'Sango Kaku') for fall leaf color and red branches in winter. It'd look great in that spot, annnd help you get over your suffering patient.

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  6. Only one of my Japanese maples (Katsura) has split like that but it was from the October snowstorm. Since the form is normally quite upright I never repaired any of the splits. So far, so good because it is a major focal point plant on my patio and was just starting to get big enough to provide a little shade for the table.

    As long as the tree looks good and is making you happy I would keep it. When the time comes, invite Lee over and let deal the final blows :).

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    1. Yes! My saw is always sharp.

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    2. Sue, my two other upright Japanese maples do not have this self destructive tendency. It's only this weeper. I'm glad yours survived the storm and aren't falling apart! Lee May and a sharp saw -- that might be the answer : )

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  7. Given how slowly Japanese maples grow, I vote for keeping up the surgery. The tree will tell you when it's had enough, I'm sure. Plus your is such a pretty one. Do you know the variety? I wouldn't have the snow problem down here so weeping Japanese maples would fit right in.

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    1. Sarah, I do want to see if next spring it looks good, and if not, I think you are right -- it will tell me if it should go then. It's a Crimson Queen var. dissectum, a very common Japanese maple, but maybe not a particularly successful one this far north.

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  8. With trees as with people, you cannot save those who do not want to save themselves. Which doesn't mean you should never try. But I would vote for letting this Japanese Maple go softly into that good night. Just think of the opportunity to get a NEW tree, a tree that will thrive and not (literally) fall apart.

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    1. Jason, I've been resisting the idea of a new tree in this spot, but you and others are starting to get me thinking that I could really improve things. It's smack in front of the house, so whatever I have there it has to be perfect! And this tree is not.

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  9. You have gone above and beyond the call of duty for this tree (I am very impressed with your creativity with a nut and bolt.) My motto is the plant has to bring me more joy than hassle. Lee and I come from the "tough love" club and this plant definitely has issues. Good luck deciding what to do!

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    1. Rosemary, this tree still brings me joy, I have to say it is a beauty in spring. But the hassle factor is definitely starting to creep up!

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  10. I wonder if the general shape of a weeping tree lends itself to this type of trouble? That wide top is perfect for lots of heavy snow to lay on. You've done a wonderful job thus far keeping it alive and it seems to respond well to you. Maybe give it another season to see how it copes?

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    1. Marguerite, I had thought the wide top could bear snow loads better than an upright tree that gets bent over from snow. The weeping maple is already bent over. But it seems to be just the opposite -- the weeper is the one that can't carry snow without breaking.

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  11. It may seem suicidal, but your maple sure looks splendid when it leafs out in spring! I just love the shot of the corner of the house. The warm brown pots, the textured groundcovers and plants, the sunlight illuminating the red leaves- it is really quite magical, Laurrie. I did not blog much in December, so I took a moment to look through some older posts and I have to say that your garden is looking really nice overall.

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    1. Jennifer, thanks so much. I also love that Japanese maple with its red leaves when it is not falling apart on me. But several commenters here think it really needs to go and I am waffling on what to do with it. Then I look at the pictures and I want to keep it : )

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  12. Did you buy this tree at Ikea? They look so good but they never last. ;)

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    1. Heather, you made me laugh out loud. I did sort of buy an Ikea tree -- this little Japanese maple was on double discount sale at the end of the season several years ago. A leftover. Even then I could see it had awkward branches, more so than just the weeping habit, it had some crossed limbs. But it looked so good.

      And I'm a sucker for Ikea furniture too.

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  13. Give it the axe! It's con's outweigh it's pro's so it's time to go. I'd put a shrub there that can be pruned into a small tree such a snowball viburnum or maybe a beautiful fountain since it looks like there's outlet access. Start chopping, Laurrie!

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    1. Tammy, you are among the "tough love" gardeners! I have seriously thought about a fountain, since the electrical outlet is right there, it's a flat square area, and it's right on the way to the front door. Wouldn't that be great?

      It would have to be winter proof, as I don't want to haul it in for the season and leave an empty spot there. But it could so work . . . .

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  14. After snowmageddon in January 2010, I saw a lot of Japanese Maples crushed under the weight of snow in this area. Many people simply tore them out and started fresh, but for the few who left them in they were in for a surprise. Many trees grew back in a relatively short period of time, needing a thinning prune to space out the abundance of limbs. Maybe a hair cut is in order for you little fella, remove some of the damage and allow it to regenerate. As long as the graft is intact it should recover.

    Also, look up a system called 'Yukitsuri' from Japan. They have found away to support their trees from heavy snow while making it into a feature. Pretty cool!

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    1. Rob, the Yukitsuri system is amazing. What an elaborate way to tie up vulnerable branches! It's actually quite beautiful, but what a lot of work. I like the natural open branches in winter and don't want to hide them, even with the beautiful tie-up system the Japanese use.

      As I mentioned to Lee above, I did not bolt this latest split after all, but took off the whole thing, removing the middle upper canopy in its entirety. The tree now is very horizontal and open, and I do want to see what that looks like next spring, and whether it improves.

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  15. I really like the bench by the front door. It's a shame about the tree, it looks lovely when it's leaved out.

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    1. Sweetbay, thanks. The little bench by the front door is also somewhat suicidal, as it is falling apart from weather!

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  16. It certainly looks good with leaves. If it's not to much work, I'd keep tying it together.

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    1. Gardener on Sherlock, there seems to be two camps among the commenters -- some advocate tough love and removal of the tree, and others like you who think I should save it! Don't know what to do : )

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  17. Hello Laurrie. Well I certainly recognize this tree from last winter. To bad it keeps giving you trouble. I wouldn't say that Japanese Maples have inherent problems, just certain individual trees have bad structure. Bad upbringing at the nursery.
    We just recently repaired a splitting 40 ft. Cryptomeria tree. Similar to your Maple, just larger in scale.
    Well, good luck with that Maple tree.

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    1. Forest Keeper, it does seem I was just posting about repairing this tree, and now here I am a year later posting again. It's good to know it is not an inherent problem with self destructive Japanese maples. But I need to figure out what is so wrong with mine!

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  18. We have a small Japanese maple. It is about knee high and notice that it had split a little. Not as badly as yours, but I wonder if it is a preview of what's to come? I blamed it on one of my doggie daughters; she likes to hide under it. But, now you have me wondering...

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    1. Petunia, if it is small you might tie the split together to get it to heal. I did a lot to keep mine together, including using hardware bolts, but now I am worried I will have splits again and again. I hope yours is not so self destructive!

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