Though Japanese maple trees make prized additions to home gardens for their colourful cultivars and visual impact, the onset of curled leaves is startling. Step back from the problem and realise the issue is either completely benign or treatable. Examine your tree for any other abnormalities and act quickly to prevent any potential further damage.
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Prevent any potential problems on your Japanese maple by providing proper care on a regular basis. Vigorous Japanese maple trees have a better chance of avoiding and overcoming disease as opposed to stressed trees that are at greater risk of infection. Grow your Japanese maples in areas of your landscape that offer partial shade to full shade for best growth. Cultivate these trees in moist, well-drained soil. Maintain a weed-free area and scout for pests like mites that infest maple trees, leading to diminished health that leaves your tree more vulnerable to subsequent problems like leaf curl.
While curled leaves on a Japanese maple are usually cause for concern, verify the type of tree growing in your landscape. For one cultivar of Japanese maple trees, Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira,' curled leaves are simply a normal characteristic of leaf growth. Also referred to as lion's head Japanese maples, these trees are "unlike any Japanese maple," according to Jennifer Schultz Nelson of the University of Illinois. Taking on a vaselike form, these trees display gold, reddish-orange and yellow hues in the fall, typically turning colours after all other trees. The curled leaves of the lion's head Japanese maple are dark green with a coarse texture. For verification that the curled leaves are due to cultivar, contact your local county extension agent for assistance.
For home gardeners who do not have lion's head Japanese maples in their landscapes, peach leaf curl disease is a likely culprit. Though this fungal infection is more often associated with peach trees, as the name implies, it also targets a variety of other plants like maples, poplars and American elms. Caused by the fungal pathogen known as Taphrina deformans, leaf curl disease results in the curling and early drop of your tree's leaves and it can cause dieback and diminished health. Symptoms often appear during the spring season during cool, wet weather.
Though damage is typically short-lived and control is not typically essential, you can employ control measures in the fall to prevent the recurrence of this fungal disease. In conjunction with consistent maintenance, apply a chemical fungicide to your tree with a copper-based active ingredient, according to Washington State University. Wait to apply until the majority of leaves have fallen from your maple.
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- University of Illinois Extension; Lion's Head Japanese Maple; Jennifer Schultz Nelson; May 2005
- Purdue University Extension; Peach Leaf Curl and Oak Leaf Blister: Taphrina Strikes Again; June 2008
- Washington State University; Peach Leaf Curl; Timothy J. Smith
- University of California IPM Online: Taphrina Leaf Curl
- University of Illinois Extension: HortAnswers -- Japanese Maple