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Pacific Northwest | October 24, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineOctober, 24, home Home delivery

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Best of Fall Show
For fabulous foliage, make mine maple
Japanese maples are the most delicate of all this lovely genus of trees: Acer palmatum ’Red Pgymy’ is a newer cultivar that grows slowly and stays small.
WHENEVER I VISIT a garden with a Japanese maple, I check out how it’s been pruned. If such a graceful tree has been sheared, mutilated or cut into the shape of an umbrella, it's clear this is a novice gardener — or certainly one who is aesthetically challenged. It’s kind of like a cook without the skills to brew a decent cup of coffee. Growing good maples seems to me the bottom line on competent gardening.

I’m really not being too harsh here, because maples take to our climate like slugs. Here, they grow magnificently, unfurling delicate foliage in springtime, offering leafy shade all summer, and maturing to fiery autumnal shades late this month. Even their seeds are prettily winged like little helicopters. Maple bark can be striped, peeling and variously colored, and I've yet to see a maple be anything but elegantly shaped whether a native big leaf or a frothy little weeper.


Now In Bloom

The taller sedums are border mainstays in October, with thick, waxy foliage and wide, flat flower heads in tones of pink fading to bronze and rust. Sedums last for weeks when cut for arrangements, and in the garden carry on from midsummer through frost. Sedum telephium 'Mohrchen' has deep-red flowers and purple-tinged foliage; 'Matrona' has peachy-beige flowers; S. spectabile 'Brilliant' (above) has hot-pink flowers.

Native to Japan, the Himalayas, Europe and North America, maples are easy to care for. Because they have shallow root systems, they need to be watered regularly, but otherwise, they aren't greedy. A little organic fertilizer in spring and a bit of compost improves the soil and keeps roots from drying out. Pests and disease rarely bother maples, although sometimes branches die back due to verticillium wilt. If this happens, cut out the affected parts and hope the rest of the tree thrives, which it usually does.

Do as little pruning as possible. Remove dead wood, and in winter when the leaves are gone so you can see what you're doing, you might shape a bit or thin to reveal the trunk. It's best to plant the tree where you can let it grow into its natural, shapely silhouette.

If hardy geraniums are the little black dresses of the garden, then maples are more like T-shirts adaptable to any occasion, location or mood. Vine maples (A. circinatum) are narrow trees tolerant of nearly any sun, shade or soil conditions. Many of the Japanese maples flow dramatically down rockeries or alongside streams, and the towering Norway maple creates a majestic canopy.

There are enough maple possibilities to fill a book, and a gallery of color photos is needed to do justice to their beauty, so check out the new "Maples" by Rosemary Barrett (Firefly Books, $16.95) and the updated classic, "Japanese Maples," by J.D. Vertrees (Timber Press, $49.95).

Now is the time to view maples at the height of their color at the Washington Park Arboretum's Japanese garden and at Kubota Garden in South Seattle.

A sampling of the choices

• If you're looking for a handsome, trouble-free street tree, the Pacific Sunset maple fills the bill; it's especially tolerant of urban conditions.

• Two maples grown as much for their trunks as their leaves are the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) with flaky, peeling bark in tones of cinnamon brown, and A. pensylvanicum, one of the snakebark maples with a green trunk widely striped in white.

• Among the outstanding red-leafed maples is Acer palmatum 'Emperor I,' with purplish-red leaves in spring that hold their color until turning crimson in autumn. Another fine red maple is A. palmatum 'Tamuke yama,' which forms a burgundy cascade as lacy as a mantilla.

• A. palmatum 'Shishigashira' is an architecturally distinctive Japanese maple. Small, slow-growing and upright, each branch sports tufts of crinkled little leaves, earning its common name of lion's head maple.

• For lively color, nothing beats the shrubby A. palmatum 'Orangeola' with filigreed leaves in bright orange fading to reddish-green, followed by a second flush of orange-red in midsummer. Think of this little sherbet-shaded weeper underplanted with yellow or bronze ornamental grasses.

• The floating cloud maple (A. palmatum 'Ukigumo') is one of the loveliest of the variegated maples, its hand-shaped, twisting leaves pale green with white and pink spots. This slow-growing maple needs to be protected from hot sun and shows best grown in a container or against a background of evergreens.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is


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