When I hear ‘Japanese Maple’ it brings to mind cascading branches covered in wine red or green leaves next to a trickling waterfall. This is a common setting for Japanese maples but there are so many cultivars now that there is a tree for almost any spot in the garden whether it’s by a water feature or as a big specimen in the back of the border.
In Japan Acer palmatum grow wild as understory trees, sheltered from wind and intense sun. This is the type of site that they thrive best in so to successfully grow Japanese maples in your garden you should try to mimic its native environment.
Quite often people try to plant Japanese maples in areas that aren’t suitable. Hot patios, south facing garden beds and small containers that dry out quickly can all lead to disappointment as leaves get scorched and drop and the poor thing looks like it’s been put through the ringer. Although the plant itself is pretty tough its leaves are more delicate and proper placement in the garden is important.
Most varieties prefer morning sun then dappled shade for the afternoon. Well-drained but moist humus-rich soil is best, especially for more lace-leafed varieties that can’t store as much water in their leaves. Soil should be slightly on the acidic side which is what we have here naturally on the wet West Coast but you can work in some peat moss in the planting hole along with Sea Soil and good compost. Smaller varieties do well in large containers provided they get ample moisture through the hotter months and shelter from the sun and wind.
Variegated and lace-leafed cultivars are more susceptible to sun damage while the varieties with broader leaves are a little more tolerant. Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ is the most popular of the upright purple-leafed varieties. This one works well as a larger specimen tree and matures at about 30 feet. It has the deepest red leaf colour through summer then turns fiery red in the fall.
Acer palmatum ‘Shaina’ is a sport of ‘Bloodgood’ but is a compact and shorter variety, growing to about 6-10 feet. Bright red leaves emerge in spring and darken to maroon. Super as a container plant or bonsai.
Of the lace-leafed varieties ‘Burgundy Lace’ is graceful and heavily branched with deeply cut, wine red leaves that turn bright red in fall. Reaching a height of about 12-18 feet, this one grows wide, almost like a shrub rather than a tree.
‘Butterfly’ is a variegated cultivar with an upright, vase shaped habit. Outstanding irregular leaves are bluish-green with cream markings, often accented with pink. Very pretty tree but needs more protection from wind and sun.
My favourite cultivar is ‘Osakazuki’, partly because I like saying it the most (quickly and with feeling) but more importantly because it’s a beautiful specimen for its intense crimson fall colour. In the summer the foliage is bright green which lends itself well to a calm and cool garden with lush growth and soothing greens. With its larger leaf it can tolerate more sun than most.
Back to the ‘cascading next to a waterfall’ thought, the shorter, weeping varieties that are most popular are ‘Crimson Queen’ (red leaves) and ‘Waterfall’ (green leaves). These lace leaf types (dissectum) generally grow in a rounded dome shape with their branches cascading downwards. ‘Crimson Queen’ holds its deep red leaf colour well through the summer months and transforms into a blaze of bright, crimson red in the fall. ‘Waterfall’ turns a lovely gold in the fall, tinged with crimson. Both are wonderful as container plants but don’t be fooled by their dwarf status. They can grow as wide if not wider as they are tall.
You don’t need a Japanese themed garden to enjoy one of these pretty trees. The varieties I’ve mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg and we tend to get a few different ones in each spring along with the old standbys so there is always something new to choose from. With interest pretty much year round starting with the emergence of bright new growth, winged seeds or samaras, summer colour and brilliant fall tones Japanese maples should not be overlooked.