My garden is a bit over an acre and filled with plants of every shape and size, and growing every day. I’ve forgotten the names of many over the years, there being too many hostas and other wonderful odds and ends with too little distinction between for my poor feeble mind.
I know little or nothing about their lineage, or who found them on a mountainside wherever. I know plants that grow well, mostly from experience, and ones that have interest that should earn a spot in others’ gardens. Japanese maples deserve a spot in every garden.
All of the following Japanese maple photos were taken in my garden. I’ve no doubt that there are collectors with more, but I have nearly as many as I need. Last year I added two new plants, a Full Moon maple (above), and an odd compact upright ‘Shaina’ (below). I’ve been trying to find a Full Moon of substantial size for a reasonable price (meaning cheap) for years, and found one with a scarred trunk from a grower in Oregon. The scar made the tree unsellable, except to me.
I found a spot that I needed to plug a shrub into, and ‘Shaina’ became that shrub. Although a small tree growing only to five or six feet tall and wide, I’m certain that it will grow much larger than the space I’ve set aside for it, so when that happens I’ll carve a wider area and move its neighbors to give them proper room.
This happens frequently to the gardener, at least it does to me, and choices must be made to determine who stays and who goes. The Japanese maple always stays.
There are many thousands of Japanese maples, and dozens of varieties readily available through nurseries, so how can you possibly pick the right one for your garden?
First, calculate the room available for the maple to grow. Weeping varieties, deemed to be dwarf, will occupy a ten foot by ten foot area much quicker than you think. Many upright varieties will grow nearly thirty feet in height, with a similar spread. Neither is appropriate to be planted in close proximity to a house, walk, or patio.
Gardeners, and even landscape designers, mistakenly plant Japanese maples so that they must be chopped and mangled to keep within bounds and from blocking walkways. Resist the urge to plant before proper consideration, and give ample space for these graceful trees to show their character. Allow seven to eight feet from a walk or patio for weeping varieties, and double this for uprights. If you don’t have adequate space, plant a maple that matures to a smaller size, not just a smaller size of the same tree.
Now that we have considered the space available for our Japanese maple, we can move to aesthetic details, leaf color and shape, Fall color, texture, and branching structure. After deciding small tree or large, weeping or upright, we can scarcely go wrong with any selection, for each has its beauty.
Weeping Japanese Maples ‘Dissectum’ is the description given to maples for their finely divided lacy leaves, and for this and their generally smaller size they are most popular. Leaves can be green, as with Viridis (left), or red, found in many popular varieties such as Crimson Queen (below), Garnet, Tamukeyama, Red Dragon, and many more. For many people these are indistinguishable, but each has a distinct character in size, coloration, or branching structure.
The branching of Crimson Queen is so full that it is often referred to as a big red mushroom, while Garnet has an open growth habit to ten feet tall and would hardly be considered to have pendulous branches. Though often placed without being allotted adequate space, weeping maples are ideal for most small gardens.
I have only two weeping maples in my garden as I have plenty of room for larger trees, and I prefer the diverse leaf shapes and colors of the upright Japanese maples.
Upright growing Japanese Maples range from slow growing trees such as ‘Butterfly’ to the fast growing ‘Bloodgood’, and strict upright to wide spreading shapes.
Butterfly Maple (above) has beautiful variegated leaves of green, white, and a bit of pink in the Spring. It is a slow growing, densely branched tree that will reach ten feet in height if I live so long.
Most Japanese maples are Acer palmatum, but several lesser known are Acer japonicum or Acer shirasawanum, including the Fern Leaf maple, ‘Aconitifolium’ (above showing Fall color), and the Golden Full Moon maple ‘Aureum’ (pictured near the top). Fern Leaf maple is a nice, small spreading tree, but really takes a front seat in the garden with its Fall color. The Golden Full Moon prefers a break from the afternoon Summer sun to show its leaf color and not burn the leaves, and is quite slow growing.
‘Bloodgood’ maple is the most common of the red leaved upright Japanese maples (seen at the top of the page) and is a fine tree reaching over twenty-five feet, but there are many others with distinctive leaf color or shape. Some are not popular in commerce because they are more “unusual” than beautiful.
‘Burgundy Lace’ (above) is similar in growth to ‘Bloodgood’, but spreads slightly more and grows not quite as tall, and leaves are more finely dissected.
‘Seriyu’ has an upright growth habit to about fifteen feet with green dissectum leaves. The red Fall color is outstanding. I have planted two of these quite close to my house with the intention of walking under them as you follow the path to the front door. For several years the path was impassable until Seriyu grew large enough to prune the lower branches. Now the entry is wonderful.
‘Sangu Kaku’ the Coral Bark maple has brilliant red stems that stand out in the Winter, but is rather ordinary with leaves.
‘Shishigashira’ is quite unusual, called Lion’s Head maple. Crinkled leaves are bunched on branches giving the tree an irregular shape. Fall color is outstanding, and very slow growing, but this is not a tree that everyone will appreciate. I like it enough that I have two.
‘Linearilobum’ or perhaps ‘Atrolinear’ is notable for the spidery red leaves. In my garden a large tree from the forest edge was arching over this tree, and I knew that in another year it would fail from too much shade. The removal was a bit tricky in order not to damage the Japanese maple, but hardly a branch was scratched.
‘Okushimo’ has unusual coarse green leaves where each lobe curls inward. It has spectacular Fall color, and a narrow upright shape, but is a bit too odd for most gardens, and it’s green while most people prefer red.
‘Orido Nishiki” is a medium height grower (up to 15-18′) with green leaves splashed with pink and white. I have planted mine on the back side of a tall hornbeam hedge, so it is protected from the hot afternoon sun. Unfortunately, it is underplanted with a bamboo that has decided that it wants to grow taller than it should, so this beautiful maple is not as obvious as it should be.
My collection ends with another maple that I should know the name of, but have forgotten. It matters little though, the names are only important in commerce. The Japanese maples were planted for my enjoyment, and there is no tree in my garden that brings more satisfaction.