Japanese maple history and lore
One of the most beautiful trees is the lovely Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) The delicate, lacy foliage adds an air of elegance to any garden. Beloved in their home countries and around the world, they represent balance, calm and peace. The Japanese term for this is 'kito' and they have been a symbol of peaceful reflection for over a thousand years. There are also a few more endearing terms such as 'kaed', meaning frog hands and 'momiji' which means baby hands. Momiji-gari is also the term used to describe the yearly pilgrimage people make into the hills to view the autumn foliage, much like our North American leaf peepers do. However, this is more of a spiritual quest for our Asian neighbors across the Pacific. The Shinto believe everything has a spirit within and they go to the hills each autumn to celebrate these spirits. The maple tree has been a popular subject in many forms of Asian art over the centuries and, along with the willow one of the most frequent trees you see in paintings, kimonos and woven wall hangings.
Types of Japanese maples
Japanese maples come in a wide range of sizes and shapes. From dwarfs that rarely reach over three feet tall, to impressive specimens that can exceed thirty feet or more. The shapes range from a traditional rounded crown to a flatter, umbrella shape to actual weeping varieties. The graceful, twisted and shapely branches are an asset as well. There's not much about a Japanese maple not to like. The roots are not invasive like their western cousins. They have beautiful spring and fall colors and most of them have a slow growth rate that keeps mature trees from overstepping their bounds. Many of the cultivars are quite happy in containers and Japanese maples are traditionally a favorite subject for bonsai. They rarely produce seedlings, which is another plus that their western counterparts can't claim either. Autumn leaf colors range from the lightest greens, yellows, golds and salmons to corals, oranges, pinks, bright red and deep maroon. With so many diverse leaf colors, it is an impressive sight to group several different shades together in the garden if you have the space.
Growing Japanese maples
Japanese maples thrive in USDA zones 5 through 9, however a few conditions are necessary for the healthiest trees. They are susceptible to excess heat and strong winds so in the warmer parts of their growing zones, it is best to give them some afternoon shade from the sun and protection from the wind. Intense sun and heat burns the edges of the leaves and the wind tends to make them curl and wither. The leaves also tend to remain green, instead of the more colorful options if exposed to too much heat. Here in my zone 7, an east-facing bed with shelter from the heat of the west is best. In the cooler areas, full sun is fine and even in the hotter zones, the trees do need several hours of sun each day to produce the showiest leaves. The roots like it cool and benefit from mulch. They also prefer slightly acidic soil conditions and if you fertilize, give Japanese maples one with a low nitrogen content, it helps with the color. Light pruning to shape your tree should be done in late summer. If pruned in fall or winter like many other trees, the sap bleeds out. Many gardeners hope to create a pleasing shape by pruning very young trees. The best advice is to choose a cultivar with the ultimate mature shape you desire. There's no putting a square peg in a round hole and if you want a weeping or umbrella form, trying to force an upright variety into that shape will just cause heartache. Do a little research before you choose your tree to make sure it has the characteristics you desire.
Growing Japanese maples in containers
Gardeners further north shouldn't despair. Japanese maples do quite well in containers, so if your garden is located in a harsh winter zone, choose one of the smaller cultivars and bring it in to a garage or shed once it has gone dormant for the winter. When temperatures start to rise in late winter, set it outside to awaken like the other trees in your garden. Many northern gardeners keep happy and healthy Japanese maples for many years in this manner. Container-grown Japanese maples need a little extra attention when it comes to water, so make sure they do not suffer from drought. Feed with azalea fertilizer a couple times a year. Once in early spring and once in early summer.
There's a Japanese maple for almost everyone
Japanese maples are elegant, promote a peaceful feeling and simply beautify any space where they are planted. They make an impressive focal point and have year round interest. There are many different cultivars with a wide range of leaf colors and shapes and several different forms that should fit in almost any garden type. Prices range from inexpensive big box store offerings to high-end, luxury nurseries with large, established and rare cultivars, so there should be a Japanese maple for any budget or garden.