Dragons and Red faced Monkeys
Exuberant colour explosions with leaf showers of awe-evoking pattern and texture, Japan’s most revered trees stand apart from all others. These grand masters of virtuosity can withstand neglect and still deliver throughout the seasons, head-turning displays.
Great bursts of colour whatever the season are a singular speciality Japanese maples. No other tree can match them. Those who come close, do so with flower power. Not with leaf prowess. The fabulous foliage of this branch of the maple family (Japanese maples are three species indigenous to Japan, China and Korea) has enjoyed fame for centuries. “Man-Yoshu” a book of poems first sung their praises in 614 AD. Since, the romantic fascination of this deciduous small tree has been inspiration for Japanese poetry and art. Early worshipers were forced to make pilgrimages into the wild to admire their charms.
Domesticating the mountain beauty
And they did in droves. By the peak of “maple euphoria” in the peaceful Edo period (1603-1867) Japanese garden experts, had with inexhaustible patience and unerring taste “domesticated” the mountain beauty. Gardens everywhere were be-jewelled from a pool of more than two hundred magnificent varieties. Most came from specimens of Acer Palmatum the “smooth maple”. One favourite, Acer Palmatum ‘Osakazuki’ the “saki cup-like leaf” maple, bred mid-1800 simply glowed at dusk”. Its colour is still spectacular by today’s standards. Enough to “make you stop and go back for second look” enthuses Franz Praskac (Austria), whose serious passion for Japanese maples is reflected in the Baumschule Praskac maple selection.
Red faced monkey
Its not just the variety that astonishes, but also the ability of each individual plant to ring colour changes as the seasons unfold. ‘Dehojo’ the “red faced monkey” starts its year with in stunning hot red foliage by summer it’s soft green. ‘Hogyoku’ emerges in shy tones, then turns to a rich deep orange.
Pyroclastic autumn climax
All aspire to pyroclastic autumn climax (so typical of this plant) of firey reds and burnished golds. And their “precision cut” in thick (or thin) fingers or exquisitely serrated lobes (the Dissectum varieties) combined with varying postures adds complexity to their beauty. Highly prized (in Japan) are the species’ “odd balls”. Variegated chimera varieties with ‘Fu’, blots, spots, blemishes and striations. The choice is overwhelming. Focusing on the “best of the best” is essential. Acer palmatum ‘Atropureum’ is one. A classic and still (so Franz Praskac) “tip top”.
Watch out for new models too. New ‘Red Dragon’ outperforms the look-alike Dissectum ‘Ornatum’ in colour and hardiness. World acclaimed Maple expert Peter Gregory agrees and shared with me too, his personal recommendations: ‘Orange Dream’ brilliant spring colour and good autumn tones; ‘Asahi yago’ a good all-rounder and ‘Sangokaku’ “coral tower” with a wardrobe of green, red margined leaves in spring, a light green summer coat; gold and apricot-red autumn garb and a coral-coloured bark dessous for winter. Compelling trimmed with snow.
Four Seasons colour crescendos
Provided they’re pampered the first few years Japanese maples will put up with neglect. They’re ex-forest dwellers, used to the canopy protection of taller trees and moist peaty forest soil. They need water. They need shelter against heat and wind until they’re established. If planted in containers, pot up to a bigger pot after two years. Smaller shrub varieties including ‘Red Pygmy’ make superlative pot plants for terraces and patios. They’re artful architectural partners for walls and fences. Larger varieties make superb solitaires. The drooping lacy-leaved are marvela at the water edge companions communicating in graceful dialogue with ponds or streams. Japanese maples bless any sized garden with endless alternating colour crescendos, perfectly in tune with all four seasons.