Silver maple trunk damage can kill top limbs

Silver maples are very fast growing but the soft wood is susceptible to trunk damage.
Silver maples are very fast growing but the soft wood is susceptible to trunk damage.

Q. This spring, I have noticed the top branches of my silver maple trees look dead and have begun to fall down to the ground. What could be the problem?

— W.L. of Freeburg

A. Silver maples (Acer saccharium) are very soft-wooded and fast-growing trees. The first place to inspect for damage is the lower trunk. It could be caused by insects, woodpeckers or a lawn mower.

Damage to the lower trunk could prevent the uptake of water and sugar (sap) in the spring of the year. As a result, the upper branches receive no nutrients, so they die and later fall off with the spring winds. Any areas of soft bark, which peels off easily, or holes in the bark would indicate this problem.

Also, look at the base of the tree near the soil level for swellings that could indicate mower damage or damage caused by a weed eater. Many trees are killed by improper mowing that knicks the bark and prevents the uptake of water and nutrients. The conductive tissue is destroyed, then the upper parts at the end of the branches die. The more trunk tissue destroyed, the more branches die at the top and the more branches fall to the ground. If more than half the circumference of the tree dies, the more the tree is set back and placed into shock.

When you carefully clean out the dead tissue, you will notice a lighter color tan striped tissue underneath that is trying to grow back over the dead tissue. Carefully clean out the dead, brittle bark without damaging any more of this newly growing bark. If you can help this trunk tissue grow back and close over the dead area, the tree can form new buds on the remaining stem tissue at the top. You can also fertilize the tree at the “drip edge” (the extension of the outward leaves as you look upward on the outside edge). A fertilizer recommended for trees (0-10-10) could be applied in late fall after the tree has become dormant or in early spring either as a granular or a liquid according to the directions.

If more than half the circumference of the tree is damaged, do a severe pruning about 5 or 6 inches above the soil level. which usually means cutting down the entire tree. Try to replace this problem tree with a slower growing tree, such as a sugar maple (Acer saccharum) or a Tulip Poplar (Liriodendron tulipifera).

Q. I have 11 acres of woods which we have cleared of bush honeysuckle about five years ago. I keep it sprayed every year to control it. Now that we have opened the canopy, we have a lot of sassafras started. Should this be cut or sprayed before it creates a similar problem? Also viburnum, is also spreading in three areas.

— W. R. of Millstadt

You should be commended on your vigilant efforts to keep the bush honeysuckle under control. This is one of the biggest problems in our natural areas. And as you are finding out, there is always another problem trying to replace the first problem. Yes, you should cut and spray these plants as well. In time, you will be rewarded with the blooms of the spring ephemeral flowers such as Dutchman’s breeches, spring’s beauty, trilliums, and jack-in-the-pulpit. Nature is trying to show you how valuable your soil is. Any new opened area exposed to sunlight will become a competitive area for all surrounding plants.

Charles Giedeman is a local contributing writer. Send your gardening questions to Lifestyle Editor Patrick Kuhl, Belleville News-Democrat, P.O. Box 427, 120 S. Illinois St., Belleville, IL 62222-0427, or email them to

Do it now

ASPARAGUS: Stop cutting it, and fertilize it.

SPIDER MITES: Be on the outlook for spider mites as they will become a big problem as the weather becomes hotter.

IRIS: Inspect your iris rhizomes for borers and use an insecticide for control.