By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
There are few things more crushing than discovering your prize vine or tree has broken a stem or branch. The instant reaction is to try some sort of plant surgery to reattach the limb, but can you reattach a severed plant stem? Fixing injured plants is possible as long as you borrow some rules from the process of grafting. This procedure is used to meld one type of plant to another, generally onto rootstocks. You can learn how to reattach broken stems on most types of plants.
Can You Reattach a Severed Plant Stem?
Once a stem or branch has broken off of the main plant, the vascular system that feeds and waters that limb is cut off. This would mean the material would die in most cases. However, if you catch it quickly, you can sometimes splice it back onto the plant and save the piece.
Splice grafting broken plants is a method that will attach the main body back onto the broken stem, allowing the exchange of important moisture and nutrients to sustain the damaged stem. A simple fix can allow you to repair broken climbing plants, bushes or even tree limbs.
How to Reattach Broken Stems
Fixing injured plants with stems that have not been completely severed is easiest. They still have some connective tissue to feed the tips of the damaged piece, which will help encourage healing and health. The process starts with a stiff support of some kind and plant tape. You are basically making a splint to hold the broken material solidly upright and then some sort of tape to bind it tightly to the healthy material.
Depending on the size of the broken piece, a dowel, pencil, or stake can be used as the stiffening object. Plant tape or even old pieces of nylon are ideal for binding the stem. Anything that expands can be used to reconnect the broken piece to the parent plant.
Splice Grafting Broken Plants
Choose a splint suitable for the size of the stem or limb. Popsicle sticks or pencils are great for smaller material. Larger tree branches require thicker wood or other hard structures to support the damaged part.
Hold the broken edges together and place the stake or splint along the edge. Wrap closely with a stretchy binding such as nylons, plant tape or even electrical tape. The binding needs to have some give so the stem can grow. Brace the stem if it is dangling so there is not additional pressure on it as it heals. This is especially important when you repair broken climbing plants.
What Happens Next?
Fixing injured plants with a splice graft is no guarantee it will survive the treatment. Watch your plant carefully and give it excellent care. In other words, baby it.
Some softer stemmed plants will not heal and the material may mold, or bacteria or fungus might have been introduced into the plant.
Thick woody stems such as tree branches may have exposed cambium which doesn’t seal and will interrupt the flow of nutrients and moisture to the damage limb, slowly killing it.
You can repair broken climbing plants like clematis, jasmine and indeterminate tomato plants. There are no promises, but you really have nothing to lose.
Try splice grafting broken plants and see if you can save damaged material and the beauty of your plant.
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Identifying and Fixing Plant Nutrient Deficiencies
The Spruce / Marie Iannotti
Not all plant problems are caused by insects or diseases. Sometimes, an unhealthy plant is suffering from a nutrient deficiency or overload, meaning too much of any one nutrient. Plant nutrient deficiencies often manifest as discoloration or distortion of the leaves and stems. Unfortunately, many problems have similar symptoms and sometimes it is a combination of problems, so managing the problem can be a bit of trial and error.
Before you try to fix your plant with too many supplements and kill it with kindness, be sure you eliminate other obvious causes for sickly plants:
- Check first for signs of insects or disease.
- Foliage discoloration and stunted plants can easily be caused by soil that is too wet and drains poorly or soil that is too compacted for good root growth.
- Extreme cold or heat will slow plant growth and affect flowering and fruit set.
- Too much fertilizer can result in salt injury. Your plants may look scorched or they may wilt, even when the soil is wet.
If you can't seem to remedy the situation, bring a sample of the ailing plant into your local cooperative extension service for a definitive diagnosis.
How to assess damaged plants and trees
If your plants and trees have experienced damage from the cold or winter storms, you’ll want to evaluate and identify the issues before attempting a fix.
When assessing your landscape after a storm, avoid downed power or utility lines, or branches that may have fallen on electrical lines. If you have trees down or large limbs hanging, a professional arborist will be able to help you safely evaluate and repair damage.
Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Do a post-storm inventory
When assessing landscape damage after a storm, you’ll want to look for a few things:
- Where are major limbs or branches broken?
- Have any trees lost more than half of their crown (branches and leaves)?
- Which trees have significant damage to their bark?
- Which plants are wilting, blackened, or burned?
- Which trees or plants experienced some cosmetic damage, but appear otherwise healthy?
Trees with minor branch loss can typically be salvaged.
This will help you bucket your landscape into three categories:
- Plants and trees with minor damage that can be easily fixed or even healed on their own. This includes single broken branches or minor cosmetic damage.
- Plants and trees that have moderate damage , but will likely survive with some careful nurturing. This includes some wilting, blackened or burned foliage, as well as cracked or torn bark.
- Plants and trees that are damaged beyond repair and will need to be removed. Extensive branch loss, a split trunk or dead tissue can indicate that a tree or plant will not survive.
Trees with extensive damage are not likely to survive.
Dead or damaged?
After a winter storm, it can be hard to tell if a tree or plant is dead or just temporarily damaged.
For any trees you’re not sure about, wait a week or two, and then do a scratch test to assess health.
- Lightly scratch the outer bark of your tree with a sharp knife. Be careful not to make a large cut or wound the tree - just enough to see the cambium, or layer of bark underneath.
- If you see a layer of green bark underneath, your tree is alive.
- If the layer of bark underneath is brown and dry or mushy, that means it’s likely dead or dying.
Always perform a scratch test on the trunk of a tree rather than a single branch, since an individual branch may be dead while the rest of the tree is alive.
How to Fix a Broken Plant Stem
The stem of a tender plant can be easily damaged by high winds, heavy rains or poor handling. This vital part of the plant transports the nutrients from the water and soil to its blossoms and leaves. If the stem becomes broken or bent, it can interrupt this flow and can cause your plant to die. An experienced or amateur gardener can use common household materials to successfully repair the stem and enable the nutrients to continue to flow.
Measure the stem and cut two bamboo skewers the same length. Scissors can cut through your thin skewers. The skewers act as a splint to support the broken stem while it heals.
Place one skewer against the plant's tender stem and push its end into the soil at least an inch to secure it. The skewer needs to stand erect and not lean. This prevents the break in the stem from worsening.
Place the remaining skewer on the opposite side of the broken stem. Repeat the process described in Step 2. You now have an effective splint supporting the damaged stem.
Cut approximately 3 inches of electrician's tape with scissors. Gently wrap the piece of tape around the skewers where the break in the stem is located. This encases the damaged stem between the fashioned splint to support it until the healing process is complete.
Things You Will Need
The use of splints can be appropriate treatment for a crimped or bent tender stem. If your stem is woody, severed or torn, use a sharp cutting tool or blade to remove the stem at its base. Toothpicks or pencils can be substituted for bamboo skewers. Strips of soft cloth can be tied around the stakes in place of electrician's tape. It can take up to three weeks for the stem to repair itself.
Do not wrap the tape tightly around the skewers and stem. This could cause additional damage the stem. Make certain your stakes are inserted securely into the soil. It your skewers lean, it could cause additional breakage to the stem. The stem needs to be completely repaired before you remove the splint. A stem which has been severed or bent more than 90 degrees, is not likely to heal successfully.
In 1982, Mary Love's first book, "Shakespeare Garden," was published. She also authored professional brochures. Love was the subject of a PBS special profiling Northwestern Pennsylvania artists, highlighting her botanicals and birds. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in art education from Edinboro University in Edinboro, Pennsylvania.
Broken Branches on Japanese Maples
It’s an unfortunate fact of nature that Japanese maples are made of wood, and therefore it’s possible that your prized specimen could break a branch at some point. This may happen under the weight of a heavy snow—especially if the tree still has most of its leaves. A branch could also be snapped during a storm with high winds, so neither the North nor the South is immune to such damage. Even when Japanese maples are young and supple (only a few years old), you might wake to discover several thin branches inexplicably torn off and the bark stripped away from the trunk by critters- but that’s another post…
To Prune or Repair a Broken Japanese Maple Branch
Its a good idea to check your Japanese maples after a storm with high winds or heavy snow. Mending broken branches is fine if they are not too far gone, so getting to them quickly is essential when trying to save a damaged branch. As long as the cambium layer is intact, it can mend itself with a little help. But as the tree ages and the branch becomes larger and heavier, there is still a chance it could completely break off since it’s not as strong as it once was. If the tree is young, there is plenty of time for it to grow out and still have a nice shape, so I would recommend cutting the branch off now rather than risk another break when the tree is mature. If the tree looks misshapen with the branch gone, you will have to prune it and reshape it, and it may take a few years before it looks nice again. New branches will begin to grow from the broken area, and you’ll have to pick one that will give the tree the best sense of balance. This would be the same technique for squirrel damage on young Japanese maples.
If your branch is split, but still attached and freshly broken, there’s a chance you could save it by bolting, tying, or taping it back in place. While having to prune off a major branch can be heartbreaking at the time, it could result in a uniquely shaped Japanese maple that one day is prized for it’s individuality.
The photo on the left is of Acer Palmatum Bloodgood that lost one of it’s two major limbs (literally cutting the tree in half). It was devastating, but the tree is thriving at 30 years old, and with the careful addition of other specimens, rocks and water features, this tree has become a centerpiece of the garden. The odd shape and leaning habit makes it look much older than it actually is, and brings a lot of movement into the garden.
The photo on the right is of Acer Palmatum Dissectum Baldsmith that split, but was able to be repaired. It lives in a pot, and is thriving as well. While it’s healthy now, the break may one day invite disease, insects, or simply split again as the tree ages and endures another nasty battle with inclement weather. But, then again, it could do fine. It’s a gamble worth taking. If I did prune the branch off, half the tree would be gone. With weeping Japanese Maples, it’s more of a challenge to find a balanced shape after a major break. Therefore, something that is one sided would be used beside a rock, arching over a stream, or tucked in with some other bushes hiding the bad part. So, there would always be a place for a damaged Japanese maples somewhere in the garden. No need to throw them away. Just be creative, and use their new shape to your advantage.