Fancy-leafed Japanese maples are one of the quickest and easiest ways to add elegance to the landscape. Their ever-changing beauty begins with a flush of spring foliage from red to pink to green, followed by lush growth in summer, then an autumn extravaganza of yellows, oranges and reds and finally the sculpture of bare winter branches.
Few plants give so much and yet can be essentially carefree once established.
This column took a turn during a conversation about this unique tree when a fellow gardener and friend said, “I have 14 different cultivars in my yard.” She has lived in an established intercity neighborhood for the past 35 years, and an invitation to visit was forthcoming.
That’s when a gardening column became a love story about two people and a shared passion for Japanese maples that lives beyond their 14 years of marriage and a lost battle with cancer.
Japanese maples have been around in the U.S. since the mid 1800s, but gained in popularity when a retired Oregon extension agent published a book titled “Japanese Maples,” that became an immediate hit with gardeners in the late 1980s. And today, there are hundreds of cultivars.
They are miniature in comparison to most trees and can be weeping, rounded, dwarf, mounding, upright or cascading. Leaf shapes range from palm-shaped (acer palmatum) or delicate and lacy (Acer palmstum var. dissectum). Leaf color runs the gamut from red, green, orange, purple, white and pink depending on the season. And while they may grow in full sun in our zone, they do best in partial shade. They prefer rich, well-drained soil and regular water.
It was delightful to tour Teresa Brunk’s yard with the maples neatly placed so that each was a specimen in its own right. Our first stop was to see “Crimson Queen,” a dwarf tree with a delicate weeping form. The beautiful crimson foliage turns scarlet in fall. Teresa said she and Bobby looked at this tree several times but were convinced that $300 was too much to pay for a tree. Then Bobby justified the cost by saying, “It will be your Mother’s Day gift and my Father’s Day gift to ourselves.”
Teresa's cat, Isabella, walked the garden with us and then perched in the “Crimson Queen” and peaked out from among the colorful leaves as we visited on the patio that she and Bobby had built.
Another favorite is “Lion’s Head” (in fact, so favorite that she has three). This tree is truly unique and makes a powerful statement with leaves that are small, firm and crinkled, appearing almost like tight green fists growing in clusters along the twisted branches. The trunk and branches are a soft green, broken by some areas of white that encircle the trunk. The story attached to this one began at a Lawn and Garden Show a number of years ago. It was in Frank Sharum’s display garden, and the price tag was $175. Teresa and Bobby kept an eye on it at the garden center for a couple of years and since it had not sold, they approached Frank and asked if he would consider a discount. A 20 percent discount was enough to get the tree to the Brunk backyard.
Her “Emperor” — with its dark red foliage and black-red bark — was a gift a dozen years ago from her teenage son, Zack, who had smuggled it into the backyard and woke her up at 5:30 a.m. to see her Mother’s Day gift. This tree produces small reddish-purple flowers.
• “Bloodgood,” which she found on a clearance table for $8.75, is slender and airy, with burgundy red coloring that turns brilliant scarlet in fall and its red-black bark is striking in winter.
• “Shaina” is a compact freely branching tree with bright red foliage that matures to a deep maroon-red. This one can be used as a container specimen although Teresa’s is happy in the soil.
• “Fireglow,” named for its luminescent purple-scarlet to crimson red fall colors, is similar to “Bloodgood,” but smaller and with deeper color.
• “Elegans” is Teresa’s favorite (at least, for this week — because for gardeners, favorites are not limited to one). It is a multi-stemmed tree with seven-lobbed deeply divided leaves that are olive green with hints of brown/red at the margins.
• “Moonflower” leafs out with brilliant deep maroon and holds its color all summer, turning to bright fire engine red in fall.
• “Orangeola” is a lace-leaf cultivar with bright orange-red leaves in spring that retain an orange undertone as they fade to summertime red-green. Their color is enhanced by a second flush of orange-red new growth in midsummer.
• “Trompenburg” has distinctive palmate leaves with slender, curved leaflets that resemble the form of a dragon’s paw.
• “Viridis,” a dwarf classic green lace-leaf with strongly cascading branches that form an elegant dome-shaped specimen over time. Light green in spring and brilliant orange in fall. This was another of her bargain discoveries — $10 at Walmart.
• "Spring Delight” is named for its spring showing of yellow-green lace-leaf leaves that look as if they have been dipped in cranberry juice.
• “Green Cascade,” another that she and Bobby selected, has a pendulous form with rich green and feathery leaves.
• “Murasaki” is another dwarf whose light green leaves emerge bright green with red margins in the spring and then turn glossy and dark green with purple-red margins by summer. She refers to it as layered with color.
Teresa’s proven method of caring for these trees is simple: one-inch of water weekly, feed with Superthrive in April and don’t mulch. They seem to love her care, and she takes joy in seeing their leaf changes daily in a garden that she and Bobby spent so many hours creating and enjoying surrounded by trees they loved.
With gardeners, there is always the need for at least one more. On Teresa’s gotta have list, it is “Seiryu.” And who can blame her! According to retired UNiversity of Arkansas horticulture professor Gerald Klingaman (on learn2grow.com), “This tree has lacy green leaves reminiscent of a lacy curtain that turn into an expectant green, then a muddy orange and finally a brilliant red — all within 48 hours. Last tree to color in many fall landscapes, usually turning around Nov. 10, and lasting about five days.”
By the way, you may see folks wearing “Wanted on the Border: Gardeners With Grit” t-shirts boarding and exiting buses at private gardens, shopping and sightseeing downtown and partying at the Fort Smith National Historic Site. They are Master Gardeners from across the state in town for the Arkansas Master Gardeners' conference.
Next week, the topic will be: the marigold — more than just the flower you planted as a child!
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to email@example.com.