Top 10 Japanese maples
Expert tips on the best varieties to grow
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