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Paul’s Plant Picks: Week 2 Japanese Maples

To paraphrase Will Rogers, I never met a Japanese maple I didn’t like. After all, few trees evoke a sense of tranquility the way Japanese maples do. And few trees light up a landscape the way they do, regardless of leaf shape or color. What’s more, they’re small trees – rarely growing to more than 25’ – and they’re slow growers, making them ideal for small gardens.

Generally speaking, Japanese maples are divided into two distinct leaf shapes: palmatums (from the Latin, shaped like a hand) and dissectums (finely dissected). The latter are also known as lace-leaf maples. Both groups have red and green selections and are available in a range of sizes. They’re further divided into two distinct forms: uprights and weepers.

Despite their fragile appearance, Japanese maples are tough and easy to grow, assuming they’re planted in the right spot. First and foremost, that means a shady spot, ideally on the north or east side of your landscape, or in an area that gets filtered light throughout the day. The red-leaf varieties will color up best if they receive a few hours of morning sun, while the green-leaf varieties can handle pure shade. Dissectum varieties, regardless of color, need more shade than palmatum varieties. And among the palmatum varieties, there are some reds that can handle more sun than others.

(Still with me? Good. The hard part is over.)

In a perfect world, all Japanese maples would be planted in a slightly acidic, well-drained soil enriched with a good deal of organic matter. If that describes your soil, then do yourself a favor and never, ever move. Unfortunately, most of us are forced to deal with soil that falls short of perfect. But fear not. Japanese maples are actually quite adaptable, so long as the soil drains well. That’s the most important consideration.

All Japanese maples make outstanding specimen trees in the landscape, whether upright forms or weepers. They also look great in groups, with a mix of red and green varieties or uprights and weepers. The upright reds combine well with a number of plants, but I especially like the look of Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa) planted at the base of the trees. The green varieties contrast beautifully with Mondo Grass (Ophiopogon), especially the slow-growing but gorgeous black variety. Japanese maples also do quite well in containers for dressing up a porch, patio, or courtyard, and they’re hugely popular among bonsai enthusiasts.

If you forced me to pick a favorite Japanese maple, I’d have to say it’s the Full Moon, known botanically as Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium.’ It has an awesome, open growth form, which is to say you can see through it. That’s a great trait, because it allows you to plant in front of a window but still see the view beyond. Its deeply lobed leaves emerge light green in spring, and turn an amazing crimson in fall. Its ultimate height is maybe 18’ in as many years, although around here I’ve never seen one grow to more than about 12’.

Other favorites, at least among those that are readily available, include the following:

Coral Bark – As the name implies, the bark of this beauty is a beautiful coral color that really stands out in winter. Its deeply cut green leaves turn golden in fall. Gets 15’ tall and wide.

Red Dragon – A great weeper with spectacular blood-red foliage, and it holds its color well even in our summer heat. Grows slowly to 12’ tall and wide.

Viridis – An equally great green weeper with terrific fall color (orange and yellow, with shades of scarlet). Ultimately grows to roughly 8’ tall and wide.

Fireglow – Hugely popular upright red form that tops out at around 12’ (okay, maybe 15’ in time).

Emperor – Another nice red upright form that’ll grow to 15’.

Osakakuzi – Maybe 20’ by 20’ in time. Leaves appear green, then turn crimson in fall.

Katsura – In a word, amazing. Leaves are yellow-orange in spring, green in summer, then yellow-orange again in fall. Grows to about 10’.

Shaina – Only 6’ to 8’ at maturity, this maple is great for containers and courtyards. Leaves emerge bright red, then turn dark crimson.

Got a favorite Japanese maple that’s not on my admittedly short list? Click on comments and tell me all about it.

Photo Gallery: Click on each photo for a description or visit on flickr for additional details:

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