Friday, August 16, 2019

Making Maples

I've been grafting Japanese maples for 44 years with one early year being custom grafting for the nursery I used to work for. In that case I was paid ($1.00 apiece) for only those grafts that “took,” those that were successful. In October I prepared the rootstocks, cut and grafted the scions, then tended to them with watering and pruning until the day of reckoning on May 15th of the following year. I made $17,000, with my beginner's luck yielding about 90% success rate, but even though I worked six and sometimes seven days a week for about seven months, the owner winced as he handed me my check. I used the money to buy rootstock for my own grafting, and for the acquisition of stock plants.

There was a period in the nursery's history where the scion-cutting was delegated to an English employee, and he did quite well for a dozen years even though he was left-handed. But before that, and since he departed, I am the “trusted” employee that is assigned the task. One exception these days is if the scion cutting requires a ladder, then I stay on the ground and catch what young David tosses down to me, as I don't want to climb above two steps anymore.

Acer palmatum 'Tamuke yama'

I remember about 25 years ago when the propagator at the large, nationally-known M. Nursery wanted to visit and observe our grafting, especially since their results were poor the previous year. As we chatted I made the observation that I could teach any willing employee, even a monkey, how to graft. What was more important was the selection of scionwood and then the aftercare of the crop. This “propagator” admitted that the scions were cut by someone who didn't fit into one department of the company and so was transferred into propagation. I developed a cold sweat at the thought of just anyone choosing the scions. “Just anyone” might select water-shoots that I would consider too soft, or cut scions too thick or thin, or mix up the 'Crimson Queen' with the 'Tamuke yama' etc. Yikes! Why do you think I prefer to eliminate as many variables as possible by doing it all myself? I guess their company still propagates maples because I see their dubious product in certain retail outlets, but I could list a couple dozen of other Oregon nurseries that grow a better maple.

The above is not to imply that I have it all figured out and never make poor decisions. I know better propagators than myself, especially many from The Netherlands, and there's likely a young man or woman just down the road with better skills. I have fathered five children and I used to greet all of them when they ran up to me by lifting them from under their armpits...into the air, then catching them. It was good fun and they loved the game. At some point there was the last time for each child, but I never knew it would be so at the time. The same is true with maple grafting. It's been at least 20 years since I performed my last graft, probably with some rare variety I didn't trust to anyone else, but I have no re-call of the event. There's no need for me to graft anymore – my trained monkeys do a pretty good job.

Acer palmatum 'Ghost Dancer'

But I still cut the scions, if for no other reason than as an opportunity to commune with my trees. I have had a short, but interesting relationship with Acer palmatum 'Ghost Dancer', an Oregon-selected cultivar that originated at about the same time as my “Ghost series,” and in fact it appears quite similar to A.p. 'Sister Ghost'. I'm pretty sure that the 'Ghost Dancer' name was chosen independent of any of the six or seven cultivars in my “Ghost series.” In any case I bought two ten-foot trees at a retail location for $295 each, so it was a considerable investment. They were under potted and in poor condition per usual in retail garden centers where the stock stays around too long. We potted them up and placed them in a white-poly greenhouse where they thrived. The following August I instructed David to climb the ladder to cut all of the appropriate shoots. David said “ok,” but then once up the ladder he asked, “How many?” “All that you can,” I repeated. Then I further cut the pieces into one or two-node sections, and by the following spring we had about 300 young healthy starts. Last summer we could only graft about 125 good scions from the two trees, and this August the same two post-prime hags presented me with nothing. Instead, I was forced to cut form the original 300 propagules in one-gallon pots, except that in the meantime I had sold 200 before I could cut anything. So, we went from an abundance of loaves and fishes to scrounging for wood in just three year's time. Nursery production can be a roller-coaster ride with any cultivar, but as I've said before: my production department is often at odds with the sales department. Nevertheless I should have managed 'Ghost Dancer' much better.

Davidia involucrata 'Aya nishiki'

Styrax japonicus 'Snow Drops'

Styrax japonicus 'Snow Drops'

I like to finish summer grafting by the end of September, but often we'll slide into the first half of October. Besides the palmatums, shirasawanums and japonicums – the “typical” Japanese maples – we'll also produce the Acer buergerianums, A. circinatums and perhaps some of the stripe-bark maples such as Acer conspicuum 'Phoenix'. Then, if time, we'll do Styrax, Davidia and Carpinus grafts. They do well in late summer - early fall if we have the time. There's no one in the company attuned to the ticking clock except for me. My grafters receive a $50 bonus above their regular pay when they work on Saturday as an incentive to slog through the thousands of scions, but for every one of my 44 propagating years I have always felt behind.

Acer palmatum 'Peve Starfish'

Acer palmatum 'Peve Starfish'

It was seemingly just a couple of years ago when I received scionwood of Acer palmatum 'Peve Starfish' from Vergeldt Nursery in Holland. Actually – I just looked it up in my records – I got my start seven years ago. Besides its display of red-purple leaves that feature downward-curling lobes, the cultivar is vigorous with a stout appearance. I easily sell all that I put on the availability so there is the temptation to produce as many as possible. But I know better than to do that because it is better to be sold out than to have too many. Two years ago I stopped at 1,000 grafts when I could have grafted double that number. This summer I have enough wood to do 5,000 grafts but I'll probably settle for about 700. When 'Peve Starfish' becomes better known and other nurseries are producing it I might settle on just 300-400 per year, comparable to other cultivar amounts. Why it's tempting to produce more is because the trees produce a lot of excellent scionwood and our graft take is high. If I hadn't sold any at specimen size I could graft as many as 10,000; I actually would have had enough scionwood to do so.

Acer palmatum 'Ikandi'

On the other hand, good scions are hard to come by for Acer palmatum 'Ikandi'. I have lots of stock trees but all of the stems are soft and flush with new growth. It's easy to sit in the office and project how many grafts I'd like to do, but you don't know what you're going to find until you start pawing through the trees with felcoes in hand. The seed tree that begat 'Ikandi' was Acer palmatum 'Alpenweiss', and I produce a few of the latter still, but I don't have a market for the same amount as 'Ikandi'. Maybe I shouldn't propagate 'Alpenweiss' any more because 'Ikandi' is more colorful anyway. The seed parent of 'Alpenweiss' was the old cultivar Acer palmatum 'Higasa yama' which I don't have on the property anymore. I gave 'H.' up because 'A.' was more colorful than its parent...if you follow what I'm saying.

Acer palmatum 'Garnet'

I still have one 35-year-old Acer palmatum 'Garnet' in the field but it doesn't produce viable scionwood anymore. My only other 'Garnet' is a younger tree in a 20-gallon pot. It originally belonged to a larger group but they were sold and the single remains because it is one-sided and has a scar on the trunk. For some reason I cut 20 scions – I guess just to keep the cultivar on the ark. Twenty five years ago, when we sold thousands of maple liners more than today, 'Garnet' was a popular red laceleaf, but the demand has waned since then.

Acer palmatum 'Red Dragon'

In Vertrees Japanese Maples (1978), the photo of 'Garnet' is the same as the one in the latest, 4th edition (2009), except that in the latter edition the photo has been rotated on its side. The descriptive paragraphs are re-worked somewhat in the 4th edition, but both editions state: “It retains it color well and is a durable landscape plant.” Actually it doesn't retain its color well compared to other red laceleaf cultivars, at least in Oregon. Of course 'Garnet' will be more green if grown in shade. My venerable old specimen is in full sun in a row with 'Crimson Queen', 'Tamuke yama', 'Red Dragon', 'Select Red' and 'Inaba shidare', all of the same age. I don't harvest scions from these trees anymore, but I leave them in place so one can compare their shapes and colors, and from that point of view 'Garnet' is inferior. By the way, I'm writing this in mid-August, when earlier in May all of the trees looked pretty much equal.

Acer palmatum 'Select Red'

Acer palmatum 'Inaba shidare'

Another reason for leaving these laceleafs in place is to absolutely prove that Acer palmatum 'Select Red' (also incorrectly known as 'Red Select') is not the same as Acer palmatum 'Inaba shidare' as some have alleged. They were planted next to each other on purpose to make my point. I won't belabor the 'Select Red' story again* – as I've done it in a past blog – but I will be blunt: the bottom line to the mix-up was due to Dutch greed in the 1970's. I don't propagate 'Select Red' anymore because 1) I don't like the boring name and 2) 'Inaba shidare' is the better cultivar. Again, at least in Oregon.

*Interestingly, 'Inaba shidare' is also known as 'Holland Select'.

When we graft a large number of a cultivar – say 500 up – I purposely graft on two or three different dates, with the scionwood coming from different places. It would be easier to do all of one variety at a time, but I feel that I'm spreading out the risk by splitting things up. Maybe grafter J. has a migraine on one day and her results won't be so good, but hopefully she's fine a month later when we do some more. Even after 40-plus years I continue to be nervous and I take nothing for granted. I don't put all of my chicken eggs in one basket either.

Acer palmatum 'Anne Irene'

Most men are attracted to women, but we all have our "type." Aside from anatomical features, some of us would choose smoldering beauty but others prefer cute and sweet. I go for the latter for it aptly describes my wife. Similarly I have become smitten with Acer palmatum 'Anne Irene', a new Dutch introduction that was discovered as a sport on A.p. 'Summer Gold'. Best in spring, the bright yellow leaves are highlighted by a red margin. I won't go so far as to say 'Anne Irene' is my favorite maple, but she's certainly a maple I highly favor: cute and sweet in spring and summer, but then she actually smolders in autumn with deep red-to-maroon foliage color. I would love to meet the girl that the maple was named for; was she the finder's daughter, or...

I'm no stranger to beauty because my two youngest daughters (ages 13 and 16) are responsible for preparing the scions. They cut the leaves off at the petioles and shorten the tips as necessary, and they are faster, more confident and involved than my regular employees. They would work for no pay, just to help me out, and besides they like to bond in the shared activity. Each has worked alone, but they are happier and faster in each other's company. So just know: if you buy a maple graft from us next spring, or a specimen five years from now, one of these two beauties had her hand on it in the beginning.

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