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If you have room for only one tree ... Japanese maple.

The best time to shop for and plant Japanese maples is now. Nurseries throughout much of the West have more varieties to choose from than ever before-in a blaze of red, scarlet, orange, and yellow. (Trees range from saplings in 1-gallon cans to giants in 24-inch boxes.) And only now can you see what the fall color looks like before you buy.

But fall color isn't the only reason to plant a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). Few other trees are so well behaved. Their roots are noninvasive; their fallen leaves break down quickly or blow away in the wind, making autumn cleanup easy; and even the taller varieties can usually be pruned from a stepladder.

Japanese maples also deliver four seasons of garden interest. In winter, their bare branches have a rare structural beauty-some with snake-like, zigzagging limbs; others with stark, weeping silhouettes. The branch pattern can be strongly upright on trees over 20 feet tall, or weeping and dome-shaped on shrub-like trees under 4 feet. Some varieties have green, red, or variegated bark.

Spring growth is often more colorful than fall foliage, and many Japanese maples have brightly colored seed pods. In summer, leaves range from soft green to deep purple to variegated white and pink, and from boldly lobed to finely cut and thread-like.

More varieties available, more uses for them in the landscape

Using Japanese maples in the garden dates back well over 300 years. As early as the late 1800s, more than 200 varieties had been named. Today, more than 300 include almost every imaginable variation of leaf shape, leaf color, and growth habit. Of these, about a dozen (listed in the box on page 103) are widely sold. Most nurseries also sell seedling-grown trees (the species A. palmatum), which, although less predictable than the named varieties, are often more vigorous and adaptable.

For a wider selection, including the ones illustrated here, check mail-order catalogs and specialty nurseries.

Their variety makes Japanese maples extremely versatile in the landscape. They are hard to beat as small garden trees, fitting neatly into entryways, around patios, or anywhere space is at a premium. They also adapt well to containers-an especially good way to show off some of the more delicate varieties. And Japanese maples combine beautifully with azaleas, ferns, rhododendrons, and other shade-loving plants. Some of the more unusual varieties are eye-catching garden focal points. And, of course, they are especially suited to Oriental-style gardens.

How to grow Japanese maples

If you can grow rhododendrons and azaleas, you can grow these maples. Ideal conditions include filtered or partial shade, well-drained soil slightly on the acidic side, and consistent moisture.

There are exceptions. Red-leafed varieties tend to become more greenish if grown in deep shade, while variegated varieties are very sensitive to direct sunlight. And with most varieties, cutting back on water in late summer intensifies fall color (though color can still vary somewhat from year to year, depending on summer weather).

Except in the desert, Japanese maples can be grown anywhere in the West. But they really thrive in the Pacific Northwest and coastal parts of northern California.

In warmer areas of inland northern California and in Southern California, a sheltered planting location-such as in a courtyard or on the north side of the house is crucial for success. Any combination of strong sunlight, alkaline or salty soil, and dry winds can result in scorched leaf edges by midsummer. Scorching usually ruins the fall color. For this reason, some nurseries especially in Southern California carry a limited supply of the trees.

Seedling-grown Japanese maples are generally less likely to scorch than named varieties (ones with finely cut foliage are most sensitive). In general, these are more tolerant of heat and sun, as can be seen by the many beautiful specimens thriving in full sun in older sections of cities such as Fresno and Bakersfield. Seedling-grown trees can also get by on less water; established ones survive on three or four deep waterings a year. Deep waterings also help leach salts from the soil, minimizing leaf scorch. And a thick (3- to 4-inch) layer of organic mulch helps maintain consistent soil moisture.

Verticillium wilt is the only other serious problem most gardeners encounter with Japanese maples. The soil-borne fungus causes leaves to wilt, turn yellow, and die. In bad cases, entire trees can be killed. There is no sure-fire cure, but you can sometimes beat verticillium by pruning and discarding dead branches and applying high-nitrogen fertilizer. Otherwise, plant in containers or avoid planting in areas that have had problems.

Smaller-growing Japanese maples are easiest to grow in containers, but with close attention to watering and fertilizing even larger ones can thrive for years in containers 18 to 24 inches wide or larger.

Most trees benefit from regular pruning, especially when young. The best time is during the dormant season, but light pruning can be done any time of year. Use thinning cuts, removing entire branches or twigs at the point where they originate from another limb. Remove crowded branches to accentuate the tree's natural character and to expose inner branches. For more details, see illustration above.

Sources of plants and information

The box below describes the dozen varieties of Japanese maple most commonly found in Western nurseries. Many nurseries now carry unusual varieties, too, including the ones pictured on these pages. For the largest selection, write to Greer Gardens, 1280 Goodpasture Island Rd., Eugene, Ore. 97401. Its catalog ($3) offers more than 80 varieties.

For descriptions of more than,250 varieties, as well as many photographs, look for Japanese Maples, by J.D. Vertrees (Timber Press, Portland 1987; $40).

Which Japanese maple? Choose leaf color and shape, tree size and habit

Most varieties of Japanese maple are grafted to seedling rootstocks to increase their vigor. Others are grown from cuttings, or sometimes from seed. These are the most widely available.

`Atropurpureum'. General name used for many seedling-grown, purple-foliaged trees. Leaves unfold purplish red, turning bronzy green by the end of summer. Fall color is usually bright red. Vigorous trees often reach more than 20 feet.

`Bloodgood'. Leaves are deep red through spring and summer, brilliant scarlet in fall. Seed pods are bright red and showy. Vigorous, upright tree reaches 15 to 18 feet tall.

`Bonfire'. Leaves are bright crimson in spring, turning bronzy green then green by summer, then fiery reddish orange in fall. Trees tend to be multitrunked to about 12 feet.

`Burgundy Lace'. Similar to `Atropurpureum', but with more deeply lobed leaves. Wine red new growth gradually turns bronzy green; new branches are bright green. This spreading tree reaches about 12 feet.

`Butterfly'. White margins on tiny blue-green leaves turn reddish in fall. This upright but smallish tree reaches 8 to 12 feet.

`Crimson Queen. Extremely finely cut foliage retains crimson color all summer, turns deeper scarlet in fall. It has low, mounding habit and rarely exceeds 6 to 8 feet in height.

`Dissectum' (sometimes sold as `Dissectum Viridis'). Small, weeping tree; pale green finely cut leaves turn golden in the fall.

`Ever Red' ('Dissectum Atropurpureum'). Finely cut purplish leaves turn crimson in fall. Silvery hairs on new growth give it a grayish cast. Low, mounding shrub has weeping branches.

`Garnet'. Similar to Crimson Queen', this one is slightly more vigorous and can reach 10 to 12 feet.

`Ornatum' (`Dissectum Atropurpureum'). Similar to `Dissectum', it has bronze-red leaves that gradually turn bronzy green by summer, then red in autumn.

`Oshio Beni'. Similar to `Atropurpureum', but tree is more vigorous, with arching branches, and its leaves are not as deeply cut. Its height may reach 20 feet.

`Sango Kaku'. Bark is coral red in winter (see picture on facing page). Leaves unfold pale yellow, gradually turn green in late spring, then golden yellow in fall. Vigorous, upright tree can reach more than 20 feet.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on Japanese maple
Publication:Sunset
Date:Nov 1, 1990
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