Will Topping a Maple Tree Kill It?

October 16, 2023

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red maple tree

Maple trees are iconic trees known for their gorgeous fall foliage. Their sap is used to make delicious maple syrup. But sometimes maple trees can get too big and start to obstruct views or bump up against buildings. Some homeowners may consider topping their maple trees to keep them smaller.

Will topping a maple tree kill it? Topping a maple tree does not immediately kill it, but it irreversibly harms the tree, leading to a premature death within 5-15 years.

Continue reading for a better understanding of maple tree topping.

What is Topping a Tree?

Tree topping is cutting off the main trunk or large branches of a mature tree. It's an attempt to control the height and width of a tree. Topping removes most or all of the tree canopy.

This may seem like a quick fix to tame an unruly maple. But topping is incredibly harmful to trees and usually backfires for homeowners.

Why Topping is Terrible for Maple Trees

Maple trees did not evolve to be topped. Their branching structure and resilience depend on having a full canopy of leaves.

Topping a maple removes too much leaf surface at once. This starves the roots and makes the tree struggle to survive.

The tree will try to quickly develop new growth below the cuts to replace lost leaves. But these weakly attached shoots are prone to breaking off in storms.

Topping also exposes the tree to decaying fungi that can rot the remaining trunk and branches. Open wounds invite boring insects that further damage the maple.

So not only is topping bad for the tree's health, but it creates future hazards like breaking branches.

Topping Stresses Maples in Other Ways

Removing so much canopy at once also damages maple trees in other ways:

  • Starves roots of energy from photosynthesis
  • Harms natural growth hormones and patterns
  • Destabilizes the tree, making it prone to wind damage
  • Encourages dense, weak regrowth more likely to break
  • Allows sun to scorch the bark and remaining branches

This amount of stress makes a topped maple tree very unlikely to survive long term. The tree declines into poor health and usually dies prematurely.

will topping a maple tree kill it

Topped Maples Never Recover Their Beauty

The aesthetic impact of topping a maple tree is also long-lasting. Maples develop their iconic oval or rounded crown shape over many years of growth.

Topping immediately removes the beauty of a mature maple's natural form. The tree will never regain its original shape, even if it manages to survive.

At best, a topped maple will have an awkward, misshapen appearance going forward. Brand-new branches develop quickly with weakly attached stems.

These poorly attached shoots give the tree a bushy, sprouting look instead of a stately tree canopy. The beauty and shade of a mature maple are lost forever after topping.

Topping Leads to More Maintenance, Not Less

Many homeowners top trees hoping to reduce maintenance and control the size. But actually, topping leads to more upkeep over time.

The sprouting regrowth needs frequent pruning to reduce its weight and prevent branches from breaking. Storm damage is more likely after topping, requiring cleanup.

Topped maples decline into poor health and eventually die at a much younger age than untopped trees. Then, the homeowner has to pay to remove the dead maple.

Chances are, a topped maple that dies will have to be completely removed for safety reasons. This costs far more than occasional pruning of an untopped tree.

maple tree in the fall

So Will Topping a Maple Tree Kill It?

Topping does not immediately make a maple tree keel over and die. But it stresses the maple to a huge degree, starting irreversible harm.

Most topped maples suffer for years before succumbing to the inevitable decline. They topple over in storms, rot from inside, or slowly wither into poor health.

It may take 5 to even 15 years after topping for the maple tree to die. But the damage cannot be undone, so the demise simply cannot be stopped.

Occasionally, a maple will hang on despite topping but have a greatly shortened life span and unstable form. It's like a sick pet on borrowed time.

So, while topping itself does not instantly kill a maple, it is a certain death sentence in slow motion.

What to Do Instead of Topping Maple Trees

If a maple tree is growing too large for its space, there are far better options than topping:

  • Thinning inner branches to let more light through
  • Removing one main branch back to the trunk
  • Shortening branch length with drop crotch cuts
  • Simply enjoy the maple's natural form!

will topping a maple tree kill it

Or if a maple truly cannot fit its location, complete tree removal is better than topping. Replanting a new small maple nearby ensures you can enjoy the tree's entire mature size.

With knowledgeable pruning, maple trees can thrive for centuries while coexisting with buildings and views. Topping these iconic beauties helps no one in the long run.

So, let your maple reach its full natural potential and enjoy it for generations to come! Both you and the tree will be glad you skipped the topping.

About Attleboro Tree Removal Services

Attleboro Tree Removal Services offers full-service tree care, including pruning, trimming, and removal of hazardous trees around your home. Their certified arborists can assess the health of your trees and recommend solutions to maximize their longevity. For reliable tree care, call our arborists today at (508) 392-5454.


Can you top a mature maple tree?

Topping a mature maple tree is extremely harmful and will irreversibly damage the tree, leading to premature decline and death within a few years.

How much of a tree can you cut without killing it?

Healthy mature trees can tolerate selective pruning of up to 25% of their canopy during one season. Removing more than that can overwhelm the tree, leading to dieback, disease, and potentially death, depending on the severity of pruning.

How much can you trim off the top of a tree?

It is not recommended to trim off the top of a mature tree, as this is considered topping and can irreversibly damage and kill the tree. Light thinning of up to 25% of the overall canopy, focusing on smaller inner branches, is a safe amount of pruning for most mature trees.

How do you limit the height of a maple tree?

Carefully trim back the leader and upper branches over time to shape the canopy without topping the tree. Thinning inner branches also lets more light penetrate the canopy, slowing upward growth. For significantly reducing height, consult an arborist about proper crown reduction methods to preserve the maple's health.

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