September / 2003
At Home in the Garden

Looking for the perfect small tree?
by:  

I am constantly amazed at how many people ask me to make a recommendation for a small tree. When I show them a few and tell them that most can get about 20 feet tall everyone says, “Oh, that’s too big.” It is time then to look at a few large shrubs that can be successfully pruned to look like a small tree. Yet there is one perfect small tree—the Japanese maple.


Two types to choose from

Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, is a huge group of plants with varying sizes and forms—there is certainly one to meet almost everyone’s needs. Because of the variety they are typically arranged in categories according to their general habit and leaf form. The two main groups are the palmatum group and the dissectum group.

Palmatum, loosely defined, means radiating from a common point, or fan-like. Japanese maple leaves are indeed palmate, but when categorized as a palmatum type, they also possess a few other distinct characteristics. The leaves are deeply lobed, typically 2-5 inches long, and are serrate. The dissected types are deeply lobed but typically all the way to the petiole, and each lobe is finely cut, giving them a soft, ferny texture. The dissectum types are very popular and tend to have more unusual shapes and smaller sizes. No matter how they are grouped they are all still Japanese maples.


Expensive but worth it

This slow-growing plant can give you a little sticker shock when you go to the garden center because they are on the expensive side. A lot depends on variety. The most common ones are the least expensive, with 3-4-foot tall plants ranging in price from $70-$130. If you are looking for one that is more unusual, be prepared to pay into the hundreds of dollars for even a small 2- to 3-foot tall plant.


Planting requirements

With any nursery stock it is important to plant them in the best possible location. If you are as economic minded as I am, the more you pay for a plant the better site preparation and care it will get. After all, you want to ensure success.

Japanese maples shouldn’t be planted just anywhere. They like an area that is protected from severe winds and in part shade. A site with protection from the hot afternoon sun is a must. The soil should be moist but well-drained, and if the soil is poor the area should be amended well before planting. Remember when using soil amendments, never amend just the planting hole—always amend the area first, then dig the hole and plant.

Japanese maples are not difficult to grow, but when they are planted in a hot, dry location they are sure to fail. Plant your investment wisely and according to what the plant needs—not what you need—and you will be rewarded with a live, healthy, and thriving specimen that everyone will rave about.


Non-Dissected Japanese maples

Bloodgood has to be the top non-dissected type of Japanese maple today. Its dark, reddish-purple leaves keep their color from spring to fall, when they turn even more red. Maturing at a stunning 15-20 feet tall, Bloodgood is beautiful in any location, but is known to be the most tolerant specimen of less than ideal conditions. I have even seen it doing well in full sun with just a little marginal leaf scorch from the hot sun.

A close cousin, Burgundy Lace, grows only 10-12 feet tall and generally equally wide. The leaves are finer than Bloodgood and it turns a greenish purple in the summer, which I find very attractive.

Sango Kaku has gotten a lot of attention. Its leaves emerge red, turn green for the summer, and then yellow for the fall. It’s quite stunning but quite large, maturing at 20-25 feet tall, and as with most Japanese maples, is equally as wide.


Dissectum Japanese maples

There are so many dissected types it’s hard to pick, but I like plain old Viridis. Its leaves are heavily lobed and finely serrate, giving a distinctly soft appearance. On average the dissected types will be smaller, ranging from 8-12 feet tall, but you can find taller varieties.

It is easy to find Crimson Queen in the nurseries with its bright red, finely cut foliage. Many dissected types are more cascading than upright and Crimson Queen has a beautiful cascading shape. The reds always surpass the green Japanese maples in popularity, so you will find them more commonly available. Ever Red, Garnet, and Red Dragon are a few more popular ones you may encounter.

If you get really serious about Japanese maples, there are several great references available specifically on the subject. My basic recommendation to anyone who is not a collector but who wants a Japanese maple is to buy one that looks good to you in the nursery. What you see there is what you will get once it is planted at home. Don’t forget it will grow, so plant it accordingly with space to mature naturally.