This past fall western Georgia from Columbus to LaGrange experienced an explosion of color like many had never seen. Every maple species seemed to be trying to outdo the next; as beautiful as they are, it is the Japanese maples that take your breath away. Throughout the season, these small trees become ablaze with fiery red, orange, crimson, and yellow lending a tapestry of color to the garden that cannot be duplicated but by more Japanese maples.
The Japanese maple is known botanically as Acer palmatum. Nurserymen usually think of them as in two groups: non-dissected leafed and dissected-type leaves. Popular cultivars in the non-dissected group are the award-winning ‘Bloodgood,’ ‘Oshu beni’ and ‘Senaki.’ Sometimes we refer to these as palmate leaves.
Some of those in the dissected group are ‘Crimson Queen’, ‘Ever Red’, ‘Tamukeyama,’ and ‘Waterfall.’ Those in the dissectum group have more of a layered, mushroom shape in the garden and their heights are usually much shorter. Sometimes we shorten our description and call these dissected types. A visit to Mr. Maple’s website, however will show you there is a lot more to the story.
A couple of years ago, Matt and Tim Nichols, the gurus of all things maple, stopped by the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens to get some seeds of our champion Oliver’s Taiwanese maple. I quickly realized that their nursery and operation in North Carolina was epic in its scope and understanding of maples. I urge all maple aficionados to like their website www.mrmaple.com. You will see more Japanese maples and other species too that will make you dream of your possibilities.
Even though they are showing out, now this is a good time to plant. The Japanese maple prefers well-drained, moist, slightly acidic soils with morning sun and afternoon shade or areas of dappled light. Spread a 4-inch layer of fine pine bark and peat over the bed and till to a depth of 10 inches.
Dig the planting hole three to five times as wide as the root ball but no deeper. The top of the root ball should be even with the soil profile. Set the tree in the hole and backfill to two-thirds the depth. Tamp the soil down and water to settle. Then add the remaining backfill, repeating the process. After planting, water thoroughly and apply a 3-inch layer of mulch.
Supplemental water during the summer and protection from wind goes a long way in preventing scorching and keeping the leaves looking their best. It also will help retain the leaf color in red selections.
In Callaway Gardens, Pine Mountain Ga., there was an indescribable tapestry of color in November thanks to the vision Fred Charles Galle had years ago. Fred incorporated Japanese maples in stunning displays throughout the garden including the Scenic Overlook and Azalea Trail.
Fred was Director of Horticulture from 1953-1979 and Curator then until 1983 and won just about every horticultural award given. He was both a WWII hero and a ‘Horticultural Hero’ to those of us who chose it as a vocation. His books, “Azaleas” and “Hollies: The Genus Ilex” are considered the finest ever written and should be in every gardener’s library.
Not only do Japanese maples excel in fall color, but are also among the showiest plants in early spring combined with azaleas, camellias, dogwoods, and woodland phlox. Dazzling shows in both fall and spring make these small trees definite winning choices. Don’t consider the Japanese maple as a slow grower, you’ve just been a slow planter. Get one or two planted and in just a few short years you will have your own tapestry of color in your landscape.
Norman Winter, horticulturist, garden speaker and author of, “Tough-as-Nails Flowers for the South” and “Captivating Combinations: Color and Style in the Garden.” Follow him on Facebook @NormanWinterTheGardenGuy.