Top 10 Ja­panese maples

Ex­pert tips on the best va­ri­eties to grow

The Daily Telegraph - Gardening - - Front Page - Tony Rus­sell

There are more than 120 species of ac­ers (maples) in north­ern tem­per­ate re­gions of the world, in­clud­ing sy­camore, field maple and sugar maple. But by far the most pop­u­lar ac­ers for gar­dens are just two species known as “Ja­panese maples”, Acer pal­ma­tum and Acer japon­icum. Both are slow-grow­ing, rel­a­tively small or­na­men­tal trees, grown for their at­trac­tive fo­liage and stun­ning au­tumn colour.

Plant hunter J R Reeves is be­lieved to have in­tro­duced Acer pal­ma­tum into Eng­land in 1832. How­ever, ow­ing to Ja­pan’s em­bargo on trade, the num­ber of plants reach­ing our shores was very lim­ited un­til 1854, when Ja­pan opened up to for­eign trade. By the 1870s, Ja­pane­ses­tyle gar­dens were spring­ing up ev­ery­where and Ja­panese plants were truly in vogue. At the top of any landowner or gar­dener’s “must have” list was Acer pal­ma­tum. Over the past 25 years they have never been off the best-sellers list.

The Bri­tish cli­mate is sim­i­lar to that of the main Ja­panese is­lands of Hokkaido and Hon­shu, which have four dis­tinct sea­sons, in­clud­ing warm sum­mers, cool win­ters and plenty of rain. Most of main­land Bri­tain is suited to ac­ers – given the right soil. No mat­ter how big or small your gar­den, there is an acer that will suit. Sev­eral of the smaller, slower-grow­ing cul­ti­vars, such as those in the Acer pal­ma­tum Dis­sec­tum Group, are ideal for con­tain­ers and can be grown on a pa­tio. Given reg­u­lar feed­ing, there is no rea­son that they should not live in con­tain­ers all their life. Even when grown in the ground, this par­tic­u­lar group rarely out­grows its site.

How to grow

As with any plant, you need to mimic the con­di­tions in which it grows in the wild within your own gar­den.

In the wild, A. pal­ma­tum and A. japon­icum grow be­neath trees on the edge of wood­land, so they pre­fer dap­pled (not dense) shade and shel­ter from cold east­erly winds, par­tic­u­larly in spring when young fo­liage can be burnt as it emerges from the bud. Also, if ac­ers are grown in full sun, the fo­liage is likely to be­come scorched in sum­mer and twig dieback may oc­cur.

Au­tumn is the best time to buy and plant. Oc­to­ber and early Novem­ber is the op­ti­mum tim­ing; the soil is still warm, so roots are able to grow and es­tab­lish be­fore win­ter sets in.

Ac­ers grow best on moist but freedrain­ing loams, neu­tral to slightly acid, pH 5-7. Im­me­di­ately af­ter plant­ing, place a 5cm (2in) layer of bark mulch in a 3ft-di­am­e­ter cir­cle around the base of the tree. This helps to re­tain mois­ture in the soil around the roots and re­duce com­pe­ti­tion from other plants.

Once es­tab­lished, the ma­jor­ity of ac­ers (out­side the Dis­sec­tum Group and one or two other cul­ti­vars) will reach the size of a large shrub or small tree; few will grow taller than 23ft and, as they are rel­a­tively slow-grow­ing, even if they do they will take at least 60 years get­ting there. How­ever, there are spec­i­mens in Bri­tish gar­dens and ar­boreta that were planted around the end of the 19th cen­tury.

Given their slow growth, there

Bursts of flame: Ja­panese maples at Winkworth Ar­bore­tum, Sur­rey

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