Japanese Maples – ‘As the trees grow, we grow’

By Patricia Paquette ©
March 2017

When some of my friends share smartphone photos of their beautiful grandchildren with me, I show them this bright picture, one of mine. Let me explain.

Peg's maple Nov 2015 (3)If you look at the leaves of a Japanese maple in a certain light, you’ll see why in Japan, the words for these botanical treasures can also mean “baby’s hands,” and even ”frog’s hands.”

The terms of endearment are easy to interpret, since most of the trees we know as Japanese maples are varieties of Acer palmatum (Latin for “hand”) with five to nine fingers or lobes on each leaf. ­

“Momiji,” as these trees are often called, translates to “becomes crimson leaves” and indeed, Japanese maples serve up a four-season feast of color in the garden.

What’s Your Favorite Color?

While chartreuse green is the preferred shade of summer leaf in Japan, most of the 800 or more Japanese maple cultivars available today are drawn from a palette out of Monet’s gardens. You don’t need a photograph to imagine how A. palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’ or ‘Fireglow’ will look in full leaf. On the other hand, bare branches on some varieties such as ‘Bihou,’ or the coral-bark maple, Sango-Kaku,’ glow like saffron or coral firesticks throughout the winter months. And then there’s autumn. I know people who host parties on afternoons in the fall just so they can serve up their maples’ annual show of flaming cognac leaves.

A. palmatum 'Japanese Sunrise '- Essence of the tree
A. palmatum ‘Japanese Sunrise’ – fr. Essence of the Tree

If just one maple warms up your view, imagine an entire forest of scarlet, apricot, and cranberry. When “leaf-peepers” in North America are traveling to marvel at the fall fireworks of our native hardwood forests, people in Japan take to the countryside for ‘”momiji-gari” – “hunting maple” or “maple viewing.”

A. palmatum and other small trees in the family, such as A. japonicum, have been cultivated in Japanese gardens for centuries. Their natural range stretches from Japan to parts of Korea, China, and Russia, where in the wild, they reach 20 or 30 feet high, often growing in the understory of open woods between larger trees.

Patricia Smyth, owner of Essence of the Tree in Northern California, reminds us that in Japan, where trees are glorified in art, poetry and textiles, pines are the “fathers,” protecting the small maples – the “little girls” – from intense sun and wind.

Late Bloomer

The wonder is that I fell for the “little girls” so late, after so many years and so many gardens of my own. My heart was stolen by a traditional ‘Bloodgood’ cultivar that came with the old house we bought in Seattle. In the first week, even before arranging TV hookups and recycling pickups, I’d already called one of the city’s best arborists for a checkup. He said my tree had been planted about 50 years earlier and that one of the area’s historic windstorms had no doubt ripped off one of its heavy branches, leaving a scar close to the ground. But for most of its life, it had been shaped and pruned by someone with an artistic hand, whose legacy I emulated for the 25 years the tree was in my care.

Surrounded by fragrant, towering Douglas fir and cedar trees, I only had eyes for that spreading maple in front of the house. Parents with their first child had nothing on me. I photographed my tree in all seasons, dripping coral flowers in spring and silver raindrops all winter. Each November, I spent hours wrapping the branches in white fairy lights — something like the Northwest version of fireflies, now that I think of it. I mowed the lawn under her bare branches into a low-pile carpet that would capture her Oriental rug pattern of branch-shadows under sunlight, moonlight and streetlights.

Winter tracery of my tree’s branches

Maples in Your Garden?

My tree had generally good garden manners, fitting gracefully into her setting. Small size is yet another reason Japanese maples are prized; they range from tabletop bonsai to landscape focal points. While they grow best in USDA planting zones 5-6 to 9, Smyth is working to expand their reach into challenging environments across the country; she’s nurturing and developing hardy small-scale cultivars for gardens or containers which retain “the essence of the tree” and can be sheltered from severe weather in a protected space. She takes her time. “Knowing a tree as an individual for many years, from spring through summer and fall and the quiet of winter, year by year, is a privilege,” Smyth says. “As the tree grows, I grow.”

I understand. To me, Japanese maples have individual personalities unlike any other garden tree. With their approachable form and ease of care, they seem content to share their long lives companionably alongside ours, growing slowly along with us, making few demands, and rewarding us immeasurably.

Smyth named one of her trees after Yuki Nara, a revered Northern California Japanese maple “godmother.” Nara honors the maples by leading workshops demonstrating pruning principles that develop their lightweight beauty and grace. In Way of Maple, she advises us to look closely at the tree’s role in our garden “to make the best use for a tree’s life” – and for ours in return.

Leaving a Legacy

It was easier to leave the house than my tree when I moved from the West Coast to the East. There are plenty of other places to live, but no replacement for the tree I’d loved for 25 years and that had been growing for two generations before that. However, in every one of those years, I collected and nurtured countless hybrid seedlings that popped up in my yard. They grew into a surprise confetti of leaf shapes, colors and forms – greens, burgundies, pinks, finely cut laceleaf, weeping, and upright.

During those years, I also offered countless messages into the wind thanking those who had planted the tree in that place. And I returned the favor by bequeathing her offspring to fund-raising plant sales and to cherished friends.

The color of one of my prettiest upstarts inspired me to give it to a former colleague, an artist whose red hair matches its gold-red leaves. She, too, nurtured it first in a pot, and then rooted it into the earth. Last fall, she sent the “baby picture” of her seedling, now coming into its own, its “baby hands” reaching out to future generations. No wonder I feel like a grandmother.


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