Japanese maples can outperform ornamentals

Sunday, February 26, 2006

WASHINGTON, Va. -- If you've priced a Japanese maple lately, then you probably discovered it's not just their leaves that are golden. Choice trees fetch $400 or more.

But consider what these woody ornamentals can bring to your surroundings.

Japanese maples are fall foliage standouts. They also outperform many other showy ornamentals with their springtime radiance, displaying spectacular leaves that continue "flowering" long after the fruit trees have dropped their blossoms.

Several maple hybrids are prized for their peeling, paper-like or colorful bark, which provide a vivid splash of eye appeal in winter when all else appears drab or monochromatic. More than 400 different Japanese maple cultivars have been developed, making it a great all-purpose, all-season tree whether it's used as a centerpiece or in groups.

Japanese maples need nurturing if they're to realize their stylistic potential.

"When young they have to be babied and cared for and that runs up the cost," said Francie Schroeder, who with her husband, Henry Eastwood, operates Eastwoods Nurseries near Washington, Va. More than 200 Japanese maple varieties are slowly taking shape on their 60 acres of reclaimed hayfields in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

"They also have to be grafted and pruned. That makes them more expensive," Schroeder said. "If you want to save money on Japanese maples, get whips (seedlings) and grow them out."

Planting guides suggest Japanese maples do best with at least three hours of afternoon shade. They can survive direct summer sunlight but that means providing a steady supply of water.

"We grow a great many of our cultivars in full sun and they seem to thrive," Schroeder said. "But I wouldn't suggest anyone do that if they live farther south, say from the Carolinas through the Gulf Coast. The afternoon sun there can be brutal."

Japanese maples are not the hardiest of trees but they usually do well in USDA zones 4- through 8, she said. Watering the trees through autumn and mulching with shredded bark will help them survive winter.

Maples will grow in a clay medium, although slowly. Better that you amend the soil into something that drains well and is slightly acidic.

Planting Japanese maples in containers also is becoming popular, particularly among apartment dwellers whose patios serve as yards.

"Very few of them are not recommended for container growing," Schroeder said. "But you have to take care of them as they get older. You have to put them in larger containers or they get root bound."

Most Japanese maples don't grow overlarge, so consider mass or companion planting for dramatic color and texture blends. The autumn oranges of a Hogyoku, for example, merging with the laceleaf purple of a weeping Garnet. Or choose the rich red of a tall Osakazuki alongside the yellow of an Aureum.

The plants also offer a wide variety of summer color, said Nancy Fiers, co-owner of Mountain Maples, a specialty nursery near Laytonville, Calif.

"The greens vary from pale yellow green to deep emerald green and the reds from brick-red to almost black red," Fiers said. "The maples are also valued in the summer garden because of their beautiful habits and the graceful way they move in the breeze, seeming almost to dance."

The Japanese like their gardens to display a degree of interest throughout the year so they've bred some maples that are appealing even without any leaves.

"The beautiful contorted shapes that the branches of the weeping maples bring to the winter garden and the beautiful winter silhouettes of all the maples add fine texture and interest," Fiers said. "Add to all of this the brilliant fall foliage for which the Japanese maples are noted and gardeners can have an ever changing palette of color all year long."

Japanese maples come equipped with colorful personalities but you can continue shaping those personalities with judicious pruning and grafting.

Pruning can improve a maple's appearance and a few dedicated growers have developed this skill into an art form. Grafting unites a section of one plant with the stem of another, shaping trees in ways that ordinary pruning can't. Side grafting adds graceful twists and turns to maturing trees.

Maples tend to grow twiggy inside, which can make them appear cluttered.

"It isn't a true Japanese maple if a bird can't fly through it," laughed Schroeder, who on a recent January day was pruning undisciplined growth from a dozen dormant trees. "It's important to keep them open and airy. Some (varieties) require more pruning than others. Some are nicer if left as mounds of leaves, looking more like shrubs."

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: