In the Garden: Japanese Maples

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The mention of maple trees often conjures up large shade trees—sugar maples or red maples, for example— known for their brilliant fall color. But there are smaller maples that are much more versatile and can find a place in any garden.

Best known of the smaller maples is Acer palmatum, the Japanese maple. Despite common preconceptions, Japanese maples are not always dwarfish plants with red “ferny” leaves.  With perhaps a thousand cultivars available, making a selection can be somewhat intimidating.

If you’re adventurous—and thrifty to boot—the simplest way to select a Japanese Maple is to find a friend that already has one. Assuming it produces viable seeds, there will be a lot of seedlings underneath the parent. One issue—and here’s that adventurous part—you’re never quite sure what your tree will grow up to be. I once paid a few bucks for a “take your chances” maple seedling at a nursery and was happy with the results. I ended up with an upright, green-leaved, multi-trunked tree that was probably pretty close to the wild Japanese Maple. In the forests of East Asia, these understory trees can reach heights of 40’ to 50’; examples of similar stature can be found in gardens of the eastern United States. My little tree grew from three feet to fifteen feet in about ten years.

If you want to be sure of what you’re getting, you’ll need to buy a named cultivar. While you might find four or five varieties at the big box stores, for the more unusual types you need to head to a good garden center.  For the real rarities, you’ll either have to drive a considerable distance or order online.

So, where do you begin when selecting among umpteen Japanese maple varieties?  It’s easier if you narrow it down by four major characteristics: leaf color, leaf shape, plant size, and plant form.

Perhaps the major decision for most buyers will be red vs. green—leaf color, that is. (I get the distinct impression that red cultivars far outnumber the green ones, by the way.) For leaf colors that are actually reddish-purple to burgundy, I’ll call them “red” for simplicity’s sake.  So, color would really just be a matter of personal preference, right?  Sure…but with a couple of caveats.

When you visit the garden center in early spring, it’s easy to fall in love with the bright red tones of the foliage. But what about later in the year? Summer heat takes a toll on the red pigments in the inferior specimens and turns them to a muddy reddish brown. Fortunately, there are improved cultivars that hold the red tones fairly well in the South. An old standby is “Bloodgood,” a small tree that tops out at about twenty feet. “Bloodgood’s” leaves are lobed like most maples, but not dissected, i.e. not lacy in appearance. Beautiful red “helicopter” fruits follow the red flowers in the spring, both of which contrast with the reddish-purple foliage. An important note about “Bloodgoods”: there is more than one clone in the trade, each somewhat different. If you happen to want more than one tree of this cultivar, buy them from the same nursery. A smaller cultivar, “Red Dragon” also offers good red color retention in the heat, but on a tree that only reaches 8’ by 8’ at most. The dissected leaves emerge as a bright cherry red.

Although red foliage has a definite “wow” factor in the nursery, does it work in the landscape? I’d argue that it might not show well against a red brick wall, for example. Also, I’ve seen far too many red-leaved Japanese maples just stuck out in the middle of the front yard as some type of focal point. Sometimes this can work if you get the right cultivar, but many varieties don’t appreciate full sun all day. The red color can end up making your garden feel hotter, and nobody wants that in mid-summer. If possible, situate reddish trees against a green background for some contrast, preferably on the north side of the woods to provide shade when the sun is highest.

Often neglected, green-leaved Japanese maples deserve more attention. Their leaves sometimes emerge pinkish in the spring; as the tree puts on new growth, the newest leaves’ pinks will contrast nicely with the greens of the older leaves. “Glowing Embers” is a selection that does well in southern heat and produces excellent fall color.

One Japanese maple variety is particularly well known for its bright orange-red twigs.  The Coral Bark Maple, or “Sango Kaku,” struts its bright twigs during fall and winter, although the color does not hold in the warmer months. Also, only one- or two-year old stems will display the bright color; the older stems will essentially be gray. So, as the tree grows, the coral color occupies proportionately less of the tree and will be higher in the air. The only solution: cut the tree back severely every couple of years.

Don’t forget to pay attention to the ultimate size and shape of the Japanese Maple you select. The mounding or weeping varieties will never get very tall and usually have a greater spread. They serve as good specimens in small spaces, and combining two or three different cultivars will enhance the beauty of all.

As noted above, most Japanese maples appreciate afternoon shade, or high filtered sun all day. Roots are shallow and fibrous, so don’t plant underneath the tree. Mulch well and provide water during establishment, as well as during dry periods. Good care in the early years will provide a more resilient tree later on.

If you’d like to visit a nursery that specializes in Japanese Maples, consider Eastwood Nurseries in Washington, Virginia. They are generally open by appointment only, but will have a open houses early June.

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