Category Archives: Tree Care

Why Do Mature Trees Suddenly Die?

Why did my mature conifer (cone bearing) or deciduous (trees that lose their leaves in the fall) trees suddenly die? Arborists often get asked this question by grieving tree owners. This question deserves a serious answer, since an unbreakable bond exists between humans and trees, and when that link is unexpectedly broken, there are negative consequences for humans and the environment. This is because trees have such a large impact on our lives and often impact all types of human activities. Moreover, whether we are consciously aware of it or not, our lives are intertwined with trees, and even depend upon them for our survival, and when we lose them there are economic, social and cultural, emotional and environmental consequences. If we understand why trees die, maybe we can proactively help to keep them alive.

So why do trees die? And if we understand the reasons why they die, perhaps through wise and knowledgeable actions on our part, we can help to keep the trees in our lives alive longer. After all, as caretakers of this planet, it is our responsibility to care for the small piece of real estate over which we’ve been given stewardship including the trees on it. Face it, the simple fact is that without trees, all animal and human life will die!

With these things in mind, many years ago, as a tree care professional—in the industry, we’re called arborists—I felt that I was taking out too many trees that I knew were savable. Therefore, I rolled up my sleeves and got the necessary education, credentials, licenses and then purchased the equipment to begin providing plant health care services in my tree care company. Since then, I have saved hundreds, if not thousands of trees from their demise. This has been a rewarding activity for me on many levels.

But along the way, I have found that there is a belief among many of my clients that all trees have a life span and eventually grow old and die. For many people, this seems to explain why their yard tree suddenly died. Yet, in my decades as an arborist, I have found this belief usually to be unfounded. Since there are so many variable factors that contribute to tree mortality, it’s often not easy to determine why a tree has died without conducting extensive and costly forensics. Suffice it to say, many of the factors listed below combine to stress a tree, and if the tree doesn’t possess a sufficient reserve of stored energy to combat its stressors, it will eventually succumb to these stressors. Almost everything that a tree does is in slow motion. It grows slowly, its metabolic processes occur slowly and it usually dies slowly as well. On occasion, a tree dies quickly (in a few weeks or months), but this is rare. Like the rest of us, a tree has a strong survival instinct and wants to live. In fact, it contains many built in mechanisms to insure that it survives come what may. So to say that a tree has a certain life span and then it just dies is a misnomer. True, some trees are able to live for hundreds, even thousands of years, while other trees are relatively short lived, by comparison. But under the right conditions and with the right care, nearly any tree you plant in your yard can outlive you and probably your grandchildren too.

The Reasons Trees Die

So now let’s discuss why trees. The following is a list of some of the more common reasons of tree mortality.

Drought. Like humans and all animal life, plants need water to survive. No water, no life. Trees suck up an immense amount of water out of the soil on a continual basis, especially during the growing season. If they don’t obtain the water they need, the go into stress mode. If this continues long enough, they will slowly die of thirst.

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Video: Hinoki Cypress Pruned in the Japanese Niwaki Style

The hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), a native of Japan, is a popular garden tree in the Pacific Northwest. I aesthetically prune dozens of them each year for many clients. There are many ways to prune them improperly (e.g. shearing, pom-pom style, and hacking), but the best way to do it correctly is to work with nature by pruning them in a way that facilitates their natural growing habits, and in a way that accentuates their natural structure and beauty. The Japanese pruning techniques of bonsai and niwaki are what inform and inspire my style of pruning. This tree took me about an hour and a half to prune out. Had this been done by a Japanese pruning master, they might have spent a day or two on it. Unfortunately, it’s not in most people’s budgets to pay an arborist-pruner that amount of money; therefore, we have to do it quickly and affordably. We hope this video inspires you!

Video: De-Squarifying a Sheared Camellia

In our profession as aesthetic pruner-arborists, too often we encounter shrubs and shrub-trees that have been improperly pruned. Often they’re pruned (sheared) into geometric shapes like cubes, spheres, rectangles, pyramids, cones or even lollipops. I call this cubistic pruning—like cubistic art, if you can even call it art. Often a client will move into a home where the plants have been pruned in this manner by the previous owners, and the new owners want to restore the plant to its natural shape; they want to de-sqaurify, de-spherify, de-conify it, if you will. This often can be done, but a tree can’t be transformed from a geometric shape to its natural form overnight. It may take a few years of corrective or restorative pruning to accomplish this. In this video, we will demonstrate the first step taken to de-squarify a camellia that has been pruned and sheared for years into a cube shape. Please enjoy.

How to Prune Laceleaf Japanese Maples

A laceless Japanese maple often forms the centerpiece and a main focal point of a well-designed garden.

The Wonderful and Exotic Laceleaf Japanese Maple

Laceleaf Japanese maples are some to the most graceful and elegant trees that one can plant the home garden. Often, having one in a prominent location for all to see is a highly desired status symbol because of their elegance. Laceleaf maples may even be considered to be at the top tier of all garden tree—the aristocrat of ornamentals, that is, if they’re well pruned. If not, they can look more like a scruffy, derelict mess!

Laceleaf maples are from the dissectum group of Japanese maples, and are so named because of their deeply dissected or incised leaves from one side of the leaf petiole or stem to the other giving them a lace-like appearance, hence their name. To add to the perfection of these lacey beauties, they generally have seven lobes. It is a deciduous tree that forms a mounding, shrubby shape and can be a single to multistemmed tree with cascading branching and a semi-weeping habit.  The lacelef maple is generally slow-growing and typically reaching no more than four to six feet in height with a wider crown spread. 

Due to the popularity of the laceleaf maple over the centuries,  horticulturalists have developed more than 2,000 varieties with all variations of leaf colors and configurations. The bright reddish colors that many laceleaf maples turn in the autumn can be real eye-catching head turners.  

The Japanese maples originate from the hills Japan, Korea, China and into eastern Mongolia and southeast Russia. The botanical name for the Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, is credited to the Swiss botanist and doctor Carl Peter Thunberg who lived in the late 1700s. Acer  is the botanical name for maple, and palmatum refers to the hand-like look of the leaf.

The Japanese name for the Japanese maple is momiji meaning “the hand of a baby.” 

Japanese Maples Vs. Laceleaf Japanese Maples

There are several broad categories of Japanese maples from which the more diminutive laceleaf variety derives.

  • Upright Japanese Maples: Under the moniker of “Japanese maple” (the upright variety), there are hundreds of cultivars that come from three main maple varieties:

Acer palmatum. This is the largest family of Japanese maples. There are more than 1000 cultivars of acer palmatum worldwide. The word cultivar is a blend of the two words cultivate and variety  and was coined as a botanical term in the 1920s.

Acer japonicum. This is a smaller family of Japanese maple with only a few varieties.

Acer shirasawanum— This is another smaller branch of the Japanese maple family with only a few varieties.

  • Laceleaf Maples or the dissectum group of Japanese maples of Acer palmatum var. dissectum: Under the moniker of lace leaf (a.k.a. laceleaf or lace-leaf) Japanese (weeping, dome-shaped or cascading) maples, there are dozens of varieties for sale in nurseries. These trees are cultivars of the three main varieties of upright Japanese maples listed above. As such, they will have names, for example, like Acer palmatum “Red Feathers,” Acer shirasawanum “Green Snowflake” and so on. 

Other Characteristics of Laceleaf Japanese Maples

Not only are laceleaf maples known for the showy leaves, but they have flowers as well. Blooming in the spring, these maples have small reddish flowers that occur on stalked, umbrella-shaped clusters. The individual flowers have five red or purple sepals and five whitish petals. The laceleaf maple is monoecious plant meaning that it contains both male and female flowers on the same tree.  In other words, it is self-pollinating.

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Free Resources to Help You Appreciate & Care for Your Trees

Example of aesthetic pruning by Good News Tree Service, Inc. of Wilsonville, Oregon

Arbor Day Foundation at arborday.org

10 Reasons to Plant Trees— https://www.arborday.org/media/print/

Good Clean Water: Tree City USAhttps://www.arborday.org/media/print/documents/2010-tree-city-usa.pdf

International Society of Aboriculture at treesaregood.org

Benefits of Trees— http://www.treesaregood.org/portals/0/docs/treecare/benefits_trees.pdf

Tree Values— http://www.treesaregood.org/portals/0/docs/treecare/TreeValues.pdf

Tree Selection— http://www.treesaregood.org/portals/0/docs/treecare/TreeSelection.pdf

Buying Quality Trees— http://www.treesaregood.org/portals/0/docs/treecare/buying_qualitytrees.pdf

Plant Health Care— http://www.treesaregood.org/portals/0/docs/treecare/PlantHealthCare.pdf

New Tree Planting— http://www.treesaregood.org/portals/0/docs/treecare/New_TreePlanting.pdf

Oregon Department of Forestry at oregon.gov/odf/Pages/index.aspx

Homeowners Guide to Tree Care— https://www.oregon.gov/ODF/Documents/ForestBenefits/HomeownersGuidetoTreeCare.pdf

Example of aesthetic pruning by Good News Tree Service, Inc. of Wilsonville, Oregon
Example of pruning by Good News Tree Service, Inc. of Wilsonville, Oregon