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Originally published Sunday, October 25, 2009 at 12:09 AM

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Plant Life

A Japanese maple collector revels in the colorful variety

Charlie Morgan of Mukilteo has collected hundreds of Japanese maples for their variety of colors and shapes, and now sells them to others who appreciate the structure and grace they add to gardens.

A favored few

Here are some of Charlie Morgan's favorite Japanese maples:

Acer palmatum 'Amber Ghost.' A vigorous grower with pink-tinged golden leaves. Morgan has one of the largest 'Amber Ghosts' in the world.

Acer palmatum 'Mikawa Yatsubusa.' A dense, compact dwarf tree, ideal for bonsai, with leaves that overlap for a frilled effect. The leaves come on chartreuse in spring, turn green in summer, then golden-orange in autumn.

Acer circinatum 'Pacific Fire.' A cultivar of our native vine maple, with the same distinctive shape plus vivid red bark in winter.

Acer palmatum 'Shindeshojo.' More of a bush than a tree, with a widely spreading crown. Its leaves come on bright reddish-pink in spring, fading to pink and green in summer.

Learn more about his collection at www.amazingmaples.com.

photographed by John Lok

CHARLIE MORGAN is possessed by Japanese maples. An architect by profession, his passion is collecting. Long before most of us had heard of eBay, Morgan bought and sold turn-of-the-century ceramics. He used his eBay profits to help buy a home in Mukilteo, and it was landscaping his new place that kicked his interest into high gear.

When a private collection of mature Japanese maples came up for sale in Olympia three years ago, Morgan jumped at the chance to buy large, well-shaped trees. "I spent about $15,000 on 35 trees," he says. "Then I went back and bought a hundred more." It took three semi-trucks to deliver all Morgan's new maples.

Soon enough he was buying and selling Japanese maples on Craigslist, sometimes going out and digging up trees for sale in private gardens. Now his house is barely visible beneath the leafy branches of more than 600 Japanese maples growing lustily in pots and big wooden boxes. This is maple-tree heaven, and Morgan gets his exercise moving his inventory around on a wheeled dolly.

What is so alluring about Japanese maples? "There are thousands of varieties!" Morgan enthuses. "I have some that are so rare, there are only a few in existence." He also appreciates that the trees are easy to care for and able to live in containers forever. They need watering every day, which is taken care of by a drip line into each pot. Good drainage is key, too, so Morgan uses potting soil loaded with bark and vermiculite.

What about pruning? "That's my hobby," says Morgan with satisfaction. "You want to open up the trees so you can look through and see the full spectrum of colors." But he cautions against heavy pruning in autumn, when trees are drought-stressed.

Morgan admits that Japanese maples can be touchy about transplanting, so it's best to move the trees when they're leafless and dormant. "But if you dig a big enough hole and water them enough you can transplant pretty much anytime," he adds.

Morgan walks through his personal forest, pointing out cascading forms, tiny dwarfs and an oddity called 'Fairy Hairs' with foliage so gauzy you can hardly see it. Some leaves are finely dissected, others are boldly lobed or slightly scalloped. Leaves come in a range of colors including pink, white, salmon, cream, chartreuse, gold and every shade of red. "Everyone thinks of maples in autumn, but the foliage is most dramatic in springtime, then it keeps changing color through the seasons," says Morgan.

Surprisingly, he recommends buying Japanese maples during winter when leaves have fallen to reveal shape and structure. That's what he did with those first fateful hundred trees, and he hasn't slowed down since.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "A Pattern Garden." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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