On Gardening: Japanese maples will warm your spirit in winter

January 12, 2015

Laceleaf Japanese maples have a layered mushroom shape.

As I write this another polar vortex or its close cousin has much of the country in the cross-hairs so to speak. If you are like me these are the occasions for a little garden daydreaming to places where the azaleas, rhododendrons, redbuds and dogwoods bloom like a priceless painting and where the exotic and ancient twisted Japanese maple is the focal point.

Japanese maples are most worthy of focal point status. If you donít believe me, visit the Japanese maple collection at the Missouri Botanical Garden.  Iíll admit I have stood literally mesmerized, in front of picturesque specimen in Portland, Ore. Gaze upon an old arching laceleaf Japanese maple, and a sense of awe and admiration fills your spirit.

The Japanese maple is known botanically as acer palmatum, and most nurserymen usually classify them in two groups: non-dissected leafed and dissected-type leaves. In reality Japanese maples can be grouped by three types: uprights, laceleafs and bush-dwarf types.

Among the uprights are the linearilobums with long, narrow lobes on each leaf. The dissectums are laceleafs with pinnately dissected leaves. The growth habit of the laceleaf types is usually cascading or weeping with a mushroom shape. The bush-dwarf group includes maples that are slower-growing and bushy.

Popular cultivars in the non-dissected group are Bloodgood, Oshu beni and Senaki. Weíve just planted the award winning Glowing Embers in our new shade garden. While I treasure these selections it is the laceleaf or dissected varieties that "cause the pause," so to speak, and brings out the cameras.

Though they are cold hardy to 10 to 20 below zero, it is heat tolerance at the top of citieria in the South. One champion that has stood the test of time is Tamukeyama, which dates back to 1710. It performs better than most selections in sweltering heat, and humidity that you might find in places like Tallahassee and Savannah, Ga. It also is one of the more vigorous varieties, reaching 6 to 8 feet tall after 10 years.

Crimson Queen is another known for its heat tolerance and ability to retain its deep red color during the summer. It will reach 4 to 5 feet tall after 10 years. That seems speedy compared to the popular Red Filigree Lace that only reaches 3 to 4 feet tall after 10 years. This is a great example of why Japanese maples are popular tub or container plants, giving an exotic Bonsai look.

In addition to these itís getting much easier to find both Inaba Shidare and Red Dragon selections, which are highly rated and reach about the same height as Crimson Queen. The most popular green-leafed selection is Seiryu, which has dissected leaves and an upright habit reaching close to 12 feet after a decade.

The best-looking Japanese maples you find throughout the South will have a few things in common: high filtered light, acidic fertile well-drained soil, a good layer of mulch and some protection from strong winds. Even though I said South, this is a good agenda for most of the country.

Japanese maples can be an enduring part of your landscape. I have had the opportunity to watch a friendís for 20 years. As yours grows and twists, and starts to develop that special character, you will be so thrilled you planted them. These maples will have special meaning for you, and your children and grandchildren, who will mature along with the trees.

Survey your landscape and see where you might have a place for at least one of these exquisite maples. We are just a few months away from one of our best planting opportunities.



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