Most of us have a love-hate relationship with Acer palmatum – while we appreciate their beauty, many of us have tried growing them with disappointing results.
The most important thing that Japanese maples need is good soil drainage. If you don’t have this on your property, they can be grown quite successfully in raised beds (at least 45 centimetres above grade) or even in large containers, provided the soil mix drains well.
I prune my Japanese maples twice a year: in winter I remove all dead or damaged wood (because it’s easy to see); and in late spring when the leaves have fully opened, I lightly prune for growth reduction.
It’s important to purchase a maple that can grow to its mature size in your allotted space, rather than constantly having to hard prune it to size, which ruins the natural form.
These trees are not heavy feeders, so you can fertilize once a year in April or May using a balanced fertilizer (use a slow-release for container specimens). Depending on the cultivar, they prefer part to full sun, but they tend to languish in deep shade with poor branching and foliar colour.
The biggest problem is usually trying to pick just one, so with that in mind here are a few choice cultivars that can be found locally – just don’t expect to find them all in one garden centre.
• ‘Bloodgood’ (7.5-9 metres) – the standard upright red Japanese maple with deep burgundy foliage all summer long.
• ‘Trompenburg’ (6-7.5m) – an upright tree with claw-like leaves that emerge a glossy reddish-purple in spring.
• ‘Fireglow’ (3-3.5m) – very much like a shorter ‘Bloodgood,’ but with thinner leaves that really shine when backlit by the sun.
• ‘Waterfall’ (1.2-1.8m) – people often overlook the green weeping Japanese maples but this one turns orange and gold in the fall.
• ‘Sango Kaku’ (6m) – the Coral bark Maple has long been cherished for its bright coral-pink winter stems.
• ‘Seiryu’ (4.5m) –an upright tree with the finely cut leaves of a weeping maple that are green, turning gold in autumn.
• ‘Red Dragon’ (1-1.2m) – a classic red weeping Japanese maple with finely cut dark burgundy foliage well into summer.
• ‘Shishigashira’ (4.5m) – the Lion’s Head Maple has small currant-shaped green leaves that grow in dense tufts, like a bonsai.
• ‘Shaina’ (3m) – similar to ‘Shishigashira’ with its small, closely-packed foliage, but shorter in stature with red to deep purple leaves.
• ‘Koto-no-ito’ (3m) – spectacular green string-like leaf lobes that sway with the slightest breeze and turn gold in fall.
• ‘Orangeola’ (1-1.5m) – a weeping form with unusual reddish-orange spring foliage and fiery deep orange to crimson autumn tones.
• ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’ (3-4.5m) –a columnar form with bright crimson foliage that works well in smaller landscapes.
• ‘Samurai’ (3m) – the new leaves emerge an unusual yellowish-bronze (with pink tips) on this hard to find cultivar.
• ‘Orange Dream’ (3-3.5m) – a truly spectacular upright tree with new growth of peachy-orange that shifts to gold with reddish margins.
• ‘Butterfly’ (3m) –a delicate dwarf upright with small greenish-grey leaves variegated in white and shrimp pink.
• ‘Atropurpureum’ (8m) –an upright specimen with deeply lobed reddish-purple leaves that turn a fiery red in the fall.
• ‘Osakazuki’ (6-7.5m) –it may be a boring green all summer but the fire engine red autumn tones are hard to miss.
• ‘Katsura’ (4.5m) – a broad upright tree with eye-catching golden-orange spring growth which turns to a lime green by summer.
Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author.