Acer palmatum (Japanese Maple)
Japanese Maples, Trees for All Seasons
By Gaius Robinson, Sonoma County Master Gardener
Elegant, eye-catching and versatile are a few of the outstanding qualities of this extraordinary tree. The Japanese Maple is an excellent focal point for any garden. Since there are over 1000 cultivars to choose from, choices of size, color and form make this plant an ideal choice for traditional, modern, even rustic gardens. Who can resist the choices of a foliage color pallete in chartreuse, burgundy, green, white or even splashes of pink? The incredible fall showing of vibrant yellows, crimson or orange makes it a star in any garden. Graceful branches and twigs take center stage in the winter. These deciduous trees change their display in all seasons.
The soft spring leaves burst from their nude winter branches beginning in March. Many of the burgundy colored maples turn to a soft green in the summer, especially if they are in a shady spot. Others keep their ruby “robes” on all summer, and become a vibrant scarlet in the fall. Three varieties that keep their red-hued color all summer are, “Emperor”, ‘Fire Glow’, and ‘Bloodgood’. One cultivar, ‘Ukigumo’ has spring leaves in white with light green flecks. As summer progresses it becomes a solid shade of chartreuse green. Winter gives another opportunity for this gem to shine in your garden. The bare branches have an elegant architectural quality. The cultivar, ‘Sago Kaku’ has coral colored twigs and branches when all else in the garden is drab.
The Japanese Maple has been in cultivation since the 1600’s in Japan. Due to the genetic variation that occurs in the seeds, you can find cultivars that are very different. There are two distinctive types of Japanese Maples: upright, that can grow to about 20 feet tall, and cascading, that grow up to 8 feet tall. The shapes of the leaves vary immensely. Some of the leaves look like intricate lace patterns in leaf form. Some look like the outline of a small hand, thus the botanical name ‘Acer palmatum’. Other species of maples are sometimes also called Japanese Maples, due to their small size and delicate leaf structures. ‘Acer japonicum’, ‘Acer shirasawanum’, and ‘Acer pentaphyllum’ are also commonly called Japanese Maples. In Sonoma county, we are lucky to have Quarryhill Botanical Gardens, where you can enjoy these and many other species of maples on a beautiful fall day. The ‘Acer pentaphyllum’ growing there may be the only living trees of wild origin in North America.
Our climate in Sonoma is perfect for growing these trees. There are several growers in our county. The proprietor of Wildwood Farm, a retail nursery in Kenwood, grows over 300 cultivars. He states that the most important practice to keep your Japanese Maples healthy is to keep the soil evenly moist with good drainage. He recommends drip with sprayer heads around the base of the maple, so all the roots can benefit. Use a slow-release fertilizer in the early spring, and again in July. The dry, hot winds of summer can burn the delicate edges of some varieties. Planting your maple in a sheltered spot can reduce this, or you can use “Cloud Cover” spray in the spring and again in mid summer to reduce the burned edges. The trees have a shallow root system which makes them easy to transplant in the fall. It also makes them ideal for bonsai. These miniaturized trees are not house plants, but thrive when kept evenly moist outdoors. A visit to a quality nursery should start any gardener on a path to enjoying the vast selection of Japanese Maples and their beauty in all seasons.
See Japanese Maples in any season at Quarryhill Botanical Gardens in Glen Ellen. For a good selection for purchase visit Momiji (which specializes in these trees – Momiji is the Japanese name for the genus) in Santa Rosa or Sonoma Horticultural Nursery in Sebastopol, which often has interesting cultivars.
©Sonoma County Master Gardeners