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Last summer I moved into a new house and it has this tree in the back garden. Can someone please help me to identify the species and also to work out why it is not growing very well.

Some branches are out in full leaf with the seeds hanging beneath, whilst other branches (probably just over 50% of the canopy) show reduced growth and poor-quality leaves.

Photos:

Stunted leaf growth

Tree canopy with healthy and unhealthy growth

Tree canopy with healthy and unhealthy growth

Leaves

Trunk

Updated photos 15.05.2019

Clear photo of tree leaves

The photo below shows a damaged leaf which may have originally misled, apologies for that.

Damaged leaf which may have originally misled

Area surrounding tree trunk, next to decking

Additional 2020 video footage from a drone: https://youtu.be/S-vcsmApJ7g

  • What part of the world are you in? – Bamboo May 13 '19 at 10:50
  • United Kingdom. – Andrew Abbott May 13 '19 at 10:56
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    The seeds look like maple, maybe Amur maple aka Acer ginnala. I can't help with the diagnosis though. – benn May 13 '19 at 12:56
  • Thanks, I'm doubtful though as the tree only has green leaves, not red. – Andrew Abbott May 13 '19 at 13:02
  • Yeah, it is likely a less exotic maple. It was a long shot. – benn May 13 '19 at 13:11
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Depending which part of the UK you're in, it might just be that the top part of the tree has not fully opened out into leaf yet because of the weather conditions this year, that is, the very warm February and the recent cold spell. Even here in the south of the UK, some Acers have been slow to leaf out, especially at the top, and in some cases, the new, upper leaves have been burned back by frost.

This is an Acer of some variety, but, in the images which show the top part of the tree, it's hard to be sure that some of the leaves don't have a white or cream variegation round the edges. This might be just an effect of the light, but it would help to make an ID of the variety of Acer if you could confirm or deny whether this is the case. There is certainly no evidence of variegation on the lower leaves visible in the penultimate photo. The other question I'd ask is whether the leaves on this tree turned red before falling or not last autumn.

UPDATE

On looking again at the images, the final picture shows some growth near the base on the left hand side that looks to be variegated, with white and maybe a touch of pink. Can you confirm that is the case? If you inspect the foliage, you may notice some all green branches as well as variegated ones, if what I'm seeing is variegated foliage in some parts at all.

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  • Thanks for your reply. No, the leaves remained green all year last year on this tree. – Andrew Abbott May 13 '19 at 13:07
  • Can you check the upper leaves for variegation please? It looks pretty mature, any idea how old the tree is, or how tall it is? Don't soak with water if its over 35 feet tall or so, it doesn't need it and will make no difference – Bamboo May 13 '19 at 19:21
  • Hi, I'm afraid I don't know the age as the previous owner provided no information. I have an idea that it may be between 15-20 years old. Also, I have updated the photos to show the leaf shapes more clearly now, I hope this will help. – Andrew Abbott May 15 '19 at 10:20
  • Can you confirm whether there are any variegated leaves? – Bamboo May 15 '19 at 10:42
  • Yes, there is definitely some variegation in various zones of the tree. – Andrew Abbott May 15 '19 at 10:49
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I think your acer is an Acer nigrum, that has fairly dull yellow brownish autumn color that you most likely even did not notice (any acer can't be just the same green all the way to the time of leaves dropping):

enter image description here

Compare the drawing above (public domain, 1913) with details of your acer.

As for remeding the problems, I would suggest removing the weekest branches (up to 20% of the tree), and thinning crowded crown areas, cleaning the area of weeds, even any grass, and watering generously this season. Small shoots from the last photo should be all removed, as they are consuming energy that should be better spent elsewhere. Then evaluate the result the next year, etc.

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  • Thank you. I didn't get the chance to look yesterday, but I will look this evening (around nine hours after this comment). Given your suggestion to water generously, is it also possible that the location of the tree, adjacent to decking, is reducing rainfall infiltration into the soils surrounding the tree and therefore reducing its water intake (i.e. the decking is sheltering some of the root zone)? – Andrew Abbott May 14 '19 at 9:15
  • Decking may have affected the tree, definitely. Various factors (amount of available water among them) also affect the color of the leaves of many plants, though I am not sure about your maple. I do know though that the color of leaves of various japanese maples throughout the year are affected by many factors, even by weather (the color is different in rainy spring year than the color during sunny spring years, lets say). It may be the case that your maple still did not reveal its best color to you. – Aleksandar M May 14 '19 at 17:59
  • Overall, my impession is that the tree is worth keeping, and that it definitely needs a little bit of love, that will be returned multiple times by its beauty in coming years. Did you have the time to enjoy the beauty of leaves and flowers developing from the buds this spring? That process is truly beautiful with all maples, too bad it spans just a week or so. – Aleksandar M May 14 '19 at 18:04
  • I have added three more photos which hopefully clarify things. I have to apologise, I didn't realise that the leaf shape in the original photo was ambiguous - it appears that I inadvertently took a photo including a damaged lead. Could you have another look and see if the leaf shape means anything more to you now that they are clearer? I've watered the tree last night, as shown in the photo which also hopefully clearly shows its location next to decking and covered by stones and a small area of weed membrane. – Andrew Abbott May 15 '19 at 10:19
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+100

I think the tree is Acer negundo 'Flamingo', a variegated box elder. It is currently available in the UK and I can confirm that it was common in the UK as early as the 1990s (reference is "Manual of Woody Landscape Plants" by Michael Dirr, 5th ed., publ. 1997). It could also be the first two-colored form 'Variegatum', although the pink new growth seems to indicate Flamingo.

Variegated maples are difficult to grow because they tend to shoot out non-variegated twigs which, because they're 100% green in a tree that isn't, out-compete their variegated brethren. Over time, the green branches out-compete the non-green branches, causing them to die. Variegated box elders are known to do this (same reference as above). See here for an example of a Norway maple where this is happening.

Another key to the ID is if you've experienced the joys of box elder bugs in the late summer and autumn. If you have, then the ID as an Acer negundo is correct.

The drone footage shows quite a bit of loss, which may or may not be caused by the green leaves out-competing the variegated leaves. It could also be caused by environmental conditions or disease. Box elders are short-lived trees in the best of environments. Because the variegation seems to be spotty at best, it's adding no real aesthetic interest to your garden, and because it's a magnet for annoying insects, I'd remove this tree.

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  • Before I remove it (because I don't have a direct replacement lined up) I'd like to have a go at serious pruning. Would you suggest I remove the green leaved-branches which are out-competing the others and the dead branches, or only the dead branches? – Andrew Abbott Apr 21 at 17:31
  • I'd first remove all the deadwood. If this doesn't leave a lot of open wounds, then I'd take out maybe a few of the larger green branches. BUT - you have to be careful that you don't overload this tree with wounds that all need callusing at the same time AND you need to make sure that you leave enough leaves to feed the tree and keep it healthy. You may want to consider if you could live with an all-green tree. This would make pruning easier (take out the dead stuff this year, then the variegated leaves next year). and limit future pruning to dead/broken wood only. – Jurp Apr 21 at 18:01
  • I took another look at your photos and there seem to be quite a lot of new growth on the lower (bottom 3m) of the tree. This is not good! Trees only do this when there's something wrong at the top of the tree that's hindering new growth. Two examples: birches that are infested with bronze birch borer put out lots of new growth below the locations of the borers in the trunk, forming a skirt of lush growth. Ash trees hosting emerald ash borer show the same type of growth as your box elder. As do oak trees afflicted with wilt. To wit, I think your tree has a disease or insect infestation. – Jurp Apr 23 at 14:58
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Looks to me like a Manitoba Maple (Acer negundo), although what this Canadian species is doing in the UK I don't know. This tree has compound leaves with three to seven leaflets in the more mature parts of the tree. One of the photos shows typical bright green sucker growth characteristic of this weedy species. It is a fast growing nuisance of a garden component that fills a space but produces poor wood and is rarely attractive. Its energetic, weak growth leads to loss of limbs which it cheerfully makes up for with more growth which you might not need. If I am right then the garden might be better off without it.

Update: new photos seem to confirm it is the junk tree I originally thought. Its only advantage is that it grows fast and fills a spot where you need something quickly. As soon as possible it should be replaced with something more interesting and manageable. It might take several attempts to get it out completely, so soonest mended soonest forgotten.

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  • I agree, it does look like a Manitoba maple or a cultivar. Why you would plant this when there are so many better choices is puzzling – kevinsky May 15 '19 at 13:23
  • All it takes is a souvenir seed from Granpa's farm. – Colin Beckingham May 15 '19 at 14:00
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As a part of the answer looking at how the tree is mulched with barrier fabric that could be possibly an indication of why the tree is struggling. There is a good chance that the previous owners did landscaping to make the place look tidier before selling it. So if that is the case and they put that barrier fabric and mulch down before selling it may have negatively affected the tree.

As even more possible troubles for that tree would be the nearby deck. If that too was done recently. Covering the roots of a tree that have acclimated to one set of circumstances can be more than the tree can survive.

I do not know if it will recover.

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