Japanese Maples: Luxury Lace

Japanese Maples: Luxury Lace

by Carol Wallace


The first plant I ever fell in love with so deeply that I would do almost anything to get it wasn't the typical hollyhock, delphinium or rose that lures so many people into gardening. My first love was small and totally green - a tiny Japanese maple in a one gallon pot with a whopping $50 price tag.

Its leaves were like lace, and it already showed signs that it would one day cascade like a leafy waterfall through the center of my garden. I wanted it. My husband took one look at this small plant with the large price tag and said no.

Two weeks later he went out of town, and I raced back to the nursery, checkbook in hand, brought it home and planted it as the centerpiece of my new raised bed. It was so tiny at the time that he never even noticed.

That tiny tree, eight years later, is everything it promised to be and more - and my husband now looks at it and proclaims "That tree is one of the best things in the yard."

Only one of the best things, though - because they're like potato chips. It's hard to stop at one.

The best thing about these trees is that they can usually fit into all but the tiniest garden, and most can grow quite happily in zones 4 through 8 - although some are more tender than others. They come in a huge variety of sizes, from a few that grow only a foot or two tall to some that can reach 35-40 feet with age. And they come in an amazing array of colors, from green to blackish red, with an array of variegations in between.

My first purchase was Acer palmatum dissectum 'Viridis' - a silvery green leafed variety that cascades. You can stake this tree when young to give it more height, or, as I did, simply allow it to flow through the bed like a green wave. Most of the dissectum varieties exhibit this cascading form and look magnificent by the side of a pond or even as a foundation planting, tying house to earth in extravagant frills of foliage. Because mine was never staked it will remain relatively low - perhaps 6' tall but a very old 'Viridis' staked can attain a height of about 12 feet with an equal spread.

The garden it calls home is in full sun - although normally Japanese maples prefer a bit of shade. The nursery owner warned me that it would look a bit crispy the first year, but assured me that it would adapt. It did, beautifully.

Another popular green dissectum is 'Waterfall', which is a good, bright green that holds up well even in full sun. No crispy period for this guy. The plant grows in layers, rising higher with each new tier, but forming a cascade. It turns golden in fall with a few crimson overtones.

Acer palmatum dissectums are the ones with leaves so finely cut that they look like lace. While most of them eventually assume a weeping, mounded form, sometimes as young trees they have a horizontal, almost layered growth pattern that is equally exotic. Near my pond I planted 'Crimson Queen' - an excellent cultivar with a fine leaf texture and a deep blackish-red color that holds all summer until, in fall it turns a bright crimson. 'Crimson Queen' was staked so that it will attain a greater height than my first 'Viridis' - but it will take a few more years before it begins to weep convincingly. Right now it looks more like a crimson cloud. Eventually it can reach a height of about 12 feet - and a width of about 15 feet.

The red dissectums are probably among the most popular ornamental trees available today, so much so that one can buy many cultivars in such unlikely places as K-Mart and Wal*Mart. If you are lucky enough to find one with a label, you might consider one of the following:


  • 'Brocade', which is a lighter shade of red than 'Crimson Queen'. It doesn't stay red all summer but eventually turns a bronze shade heading toward green. In fall it turns crimson, shaded with orange.

  • 'Ever Red', as the name suggests, holds its color well - but it too will eventually start to take on green overtones. The intriguing thing about 'Ever Red' is its spring growth, which emerges covered with fine, downy hairs so that the emerging growth looks almost gray.

  • 'Garnet' is another variety that is relatively easy to find. Instead of the blackish tones of 'Crimson Queen', the leaves on this plant tend to be more red orange. It holds its color throughout summer, and grows relatively quickly for an Acer - making it popular (and sometimes more affordable than others) in the nursery trade.

Not only the tendency to cascade, but also the intricate leaf shape is what makes these trees so special. Compared to the regular Acer palmatum, which generally has leaves lobed into a 5 or 7 fingers with a sort of "palm" joining them, these are deeply divided, with toothed edges, which is what gives them the appearance of lace. None is so fine as 'Red Filigree Lace', which is so finely made that it is almost threadlike. It will grow anywhere from 5-6 feet tall and looks amazing! And none is more lacelike and intricate than the green, dissected and redissected 'Filigree', which is even smaller at a maximum 10-year height of 5 feet. Both of these trees, if you can find them, are definitely worth growing.

I'm a sucker for foliage that is so colorful that you don't need to worry about flowers - and some of the variegated dissectums are wonderful for this.

'Filigree', mentioned above, is variegated - although most people are so awed by the leaf shape that they don't notice. Those leaves are actually liberally dotted with minute specks of gold and cream, which gives it an interesting color appearance when viewed from even a slight distance.

A variety that I would love to own is 'Sunset'. Its base color is light green, but in full sun with the light shining behind it you will notice shadings of rust to burnt orange tones that make it live up to its name. Young leaves can be almost wholly rust colored.

Another one I'm hunting for is 'Toyama nishiki' - basically green, once again, but with pink and white markings which show up best in partial shade. The intensity of variegation seems to vary from year to year - so it's like getting a whole new tree every summer. It is extremely low growing, so that staking it when it is young is almsot a necessity unless you want to grow it as a groundcover.

Because Japanese maples are not particularly easy to propagate, they tend to be pricey. However, if you keep a sharp eye out you can sometimes find a good deal at places like Home Depot. Of course then you will be growing "Red Japanese Maple" with no real clue as to what kind of red Japanese maple you are getting - but it can still be beautiful, even if nameless.

Despite the fact that they look so delicate, they are surprisingly hardy. They prefer acid soil with good drainage, and after that critical first year of necessary watering can survive even a summer like our current, rainless one quite well.

They make terrific accent plantings, and with adequate moisture most, especially of the green variety can take either full sun or partial shade. But a massed planting of a mix of green and red cultivars at a woodland's edge is nothing short of magnificent. They also make a great hedge, planted alternately - red, green, red, green - and then allowed to mingle and mix their branches - although if you don't like color variations you can stick to one color and still get a wonderful effect. Try to plant so the sun will shine through the leaves - it's beautiful!

Or for an exotic woodsy look with Oriental flair, try a mixed planting of rhododendrons, hosta and dwarf Japanese maples. Dwarfs also do splendidly in rock gardens - not to mention making terrific bonsai.

My husband is somewhat sorry that I decided to write about my favorite tree this week. As I started to think more about them, I started to see all kinds of possibilities for more of them in my own yard - so much so that I feel I really must have at least five new ones for fall planting. The difference between this purchase and that first, clandestine one is that now he has come to recognize just what a special feel and texture these wonderful, lacy trees give to the landscape. And so - I'm off to comb the catalogs to see what I can find.

Read a book review and excerpt: Japanese Maples by J.D. Vertrees.

Mapletalk has some excellent articles on the culture and use of Japanese maples.

Mountain Maples is an excellent source of A. palmatum dissectums as well as all other kinds.

Japanese maples and other maples - straight from Japan - is full of information on these lovely trees.

About the Author Carol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

About this Author