by John Richmond (john.richmond(at)virgin.net
The first thing you notice in the garden centre is the delicate, airy foliage. The leaves are intricately cut and coloured and even in their nursery pots plants stand out as something a bit special. The second thing you notice is the price. It's always quite high, sometimes very high. It's so tempting just to walk away and purchase something a little larger and a lot cheaper.
Don't make that mistake. Of all shrubby garden worthy plants the Japanese maples rank amongst the finest. Yes they will cost you - but they will repay a thousand-fold. The sooner you buy them the longer you'll enjoy them.
The true Japanese maples are varieties of Acer palmatum. These are the trees that give such grace to Japanese gardens. Variable from seed, centuries of selection have resulted in a variety of forms that range in size from small, mound shaped shrubs to elegant small trees. To preserve the variation named varieties have to be grafted, a labour intensive business which explains the high price. What it does mean is that there is a Japanese maple for any situation in the garden.
There are a few things they have in common. In the wild Acer palmatum is an understory tree of woodland. It likes a moist, leafy soil; a semi shaded position; and freedom from icy winds, especially in spring when the foliage is newly emerging. Provide these conditions in a climate no colder than US Zone 6 and you can succeed in the open garden with these lovely plants. If your climate is colder - or you need a feature on a patio or against the house wall - most make excellent container specimens. Deciduous, they will tolerate a cool shed or dim garage during their dormant season.
The species makes a small tree to about thirty feet high. Leaves are five or seven lobed, green in spring and summer, turning to red and yellow in autumn. As a specimen it is worth considering. Seedlings are comparatively cheap, grow reasonably quickly and have an elegance few other trees command. I grow one in a large tub and very satisfying it is. However, even better are the named varieties. These are consistent. With a seedling you never know what you are going to get.
A typical example is the 'Atropurpureum' group, bronze leafed forms which turn a brilliant red in autumn. Seedlings are very variable, some failing to colour well in autumn or losing their bronzing in the summer. Better are named varieties such as 'Bloodgood' or 'Trompenburg'. These eventually make substantial trees but even in my small garden I've quite happily planted a specimen of 'Bloodgood' in the knowledge that it will stay within bounds for many years.
Seedlings of the 'Dissectum' group are occasionally offered but the named varieties are so superior as to make seedlings not worth raising. These are at the other limits, making small, mound shaped shrubs which may, after decades, reach a height and spread of six feet. With these varieties the lobes of the leaves are further divided to give a lacy, almost fern like effect. The classic form is 'Dissectum Viride', with fresh green leaves that turn to red in autumn. I grow this in a pot, a good home for this entire group. Equally attractive are the many varieties with bronze leaves. My own favourite is 'Garnet'; stronger growing than many and with leaves a deep garnet red. There are many others - the reddish-purple leaved 'Crimson Queen', 'Dissectum Nigrum' with bronze red leaves, or 'Dissectum Ornatum' with bronze tinted leaves and rich red autumn colours.
The list doesn't stop with these. There are many other forms of Japanese maple - one nursery lists over 200 - and virtually all are desirable.
One of my own favourites is 'Senkaki', the coral bark maple. The leaves are elegant, red tinted when young and reliably yellow in autumn, the habit upright and attractive; and an added winter bonus. Once shed, the falling leaves reveal bright coral red tints to all the younger stems. A superb plant and well worth a place in any garden for both winter and summer effect.
Another favourite, although hard to get hold of, is 'Corallinum'. In this slow growing shrubby form the young leaves are bright shrimp red when young, only fading to green after midsummer. I regularly visit a local garden that has a venerable old specimen. This is now about ten feet high and the late spring effect is stunning.
There are also some variegated forms; including the medium sized 'Butterfly' with leaves margined with cream, pink tinted when young; and the white margined 'Asahi Zuru'. I don't rate these as highly, regarding variegation on an already well cut leaf to be an unnecessary ornamentation.
Although Acer palmatum is the classic Japanese maple there are other maples from Japan with a similar degree of elegance. Acer japonicum has all the quality you might expect but even better are a couple of varieties. 'Aconitifolium' has well dissected leaves which turn to brilliant shades of autumn red, while the variety 'Vitifolium' has broad, ten or twelve lobed leaves which turn red and orange. My own favourite is 'Aureum', a lovely yellow leafed form which can - after many years of slow growth - make quite a substantial shrub. So slow is the growth that plants will remain small for many years, an excellent choice for container growing, and undoubtedly the reason why this lovely foliage plant was only recognised as actually being a variety of Acer shirasawanum after decades in cultivation.
Whichever you grow you'll be glad you looked beyond the price on the nursery tag. Few plants are so attractive throughout the season. They have an airy grace and elegance that, to me, symbolises all that is beautiful about oriental gardens. No matter where you place them they will stand out and bring fine foliage effects to your own plot and plantings.
About the Author John Richmond is a keen gardener who lives and works in the South West of England. He has a scientific background as a professional ecologist. He has written occasional articles for gardening and other magazines in Britain since 1984, specializing in garden wildlife issues and hardy plants. Correspondence from other gardeners is always welcome.