With their arching branches and rich colours Japanese maples add elegance and style to any garden
Although they’re known as Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) these oriental plants also originated in nearby temperate areas like China and Korea. However, it was the Japanese who started developing their remarkable cultivars and forms as far back as the 16th century. Today new cultivars are bred in the USA, Britain, Holland, New Zealand and South Africa.
“Their shape and delicate form is naturally appealing,” says Laurie Railton of Sandford Heights Nursery which specialises in these trees. “And they don’t need to be pruned or bent to maintain this.”
1. A. palmatum var. dissectum is a dwarf variety with finely divided leaves and a weeping stature. It grows to 1,5m high.
2. Acer japonicum ‘Aureum’ is a small, 2-3m high tree with unusual lime-green leaves which become a darker golden-green with age and then take on shades of orange or red in autumn. It needs protection from drying winds.
3. A. palmatum ‘Trompenburg’ is a favourite of Jessie Walton of Keurbos Nursery in Elgin, who adds that this small 3-4m high tree does really well in this area. The boldly serrated leaves with their slightly curled lobes start off a deep purple red that’s almost chocolate and then after fading to a bronzy red-green in summer, take on a stunning crimson shade in autumn.
4. A. palmatum ‘Orido Nishiki’ is an upright 3m high tree and is among those with variegated pink, white and green foliage. Others include A. palmatum ‘Versicolor’ and ‘Roseo Marginatum’.
5. A. palmatum ‘Katsura’ grows to 2-5m high and the leaves start off as yellowish orange with pink margins in summer, fade to green and then turn orange in autumn. “This variety is tops in my opinion,” says plant expert Barbara Knox-Shaw, who hosts the Rare Plant Sale in Stellenbosch. “It’s a vigorous grower and provides colour in both spring and autumn. Plus there’s never any sign of disease.”
6. A. palmatum var. dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’ is one of the dwarf (1-1,5m high) cut leaf or lace leaf maples. A reliable bushy, multiple-stemmed plant with pendulous branches, its fine leaves keep their amazing burgundy colour throughout summer. “Although it will take full sun in some gardens, it may need afternoon shelter in others,” says Jessie.
7. A. palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ is a small elegant tree, 4-6m high; its deeply lobed, red-purple leaves become a bronzy green in summer them turn a brilliant red in autumn.
Always buy named grafted forms or cultivars so you’ll know they’ll be the same as the parent plant. Choose between Acer palmatum, which are small trees, and the many shrubby, dissected or cut leaf Acer palmatum var. dissectum. Among the latter are cultivars with variegated or coloured foliage. Grower Leon Scholtz of Bristlecone Nursery says, “A. palmatum cultivars with less variegation and darker foliage do best in sunny conditions, but those with purple foliage lose their leaf colour in shade.”