Friday, September 13, 2019

Pocket Guide to Japanese Maples

Juana grafting

We finished our summer grafting last week, and I'm a big part of the effort since I still cut most of the scions. Now I admit to feeling a little bittersweet because the push to keep the grafters going energized me (the two of them require about 550 each per day), but I wonder how much longer the dog-and-pony show will last. My two teenage daughters are a bit sad as well since they were paid handsomely to prepare the scions, but now they're back to school work on rainy September days, and there's no wage for any of that.

Acer palmatum 'First Ghost'

By coincidence, on the last day of grafting I pulled the abbreviated Vertrees/Gregory Japanese Maples “Pocket Guide” from the shelf so a new employee – who showed great interest in the maple grafting process – could appreciate and learn about the various cultivars that we produce. I don't use this “Pocket Guide” myself, even though it was hand-signed by author Peter Gregory, because the 12-year-old publication is not as comprehensive as the full-sized 3rd and 4th editions of Japanese Maples. I do like it, however, because one of the four photos on the cover is Acer palmatum 'First Ghost' which I took about 20 years ago. What is unusual about the photo is that one leaf is an anomaly to the basic leaf shape and color of the cultivar. Strange-looking leaves are not unusual with plants, and if examined alone, one might never guess what cultivar they belong to. For what it's worth, the one weird leaf on 'First Ghost' is now used as the logo on our letterhead and on the Buchholz Nursery sign at our main-road entrance.

Acer palmatum 'Azuma murasaki'
Acer palmatum 'Beni yubi gohon'

Notice the book's sales blurb – is that what you would call it? – on the cover which promises that the book contains “300 popular cultivars.” That claim is not coming from the authors, but rather from Timber Press, the publisher. However, the fact is that at least half of the cultivars contained therein are not at all popular. I don't suggest that they're not worthy cultivars – cultivated variants or varieties – but so many are absolutely not “popular,” nor were they ever considered so by anyone. To wit: Acer palmatums 'Akegarasu', 'Ao kanzashi', 'Aoba jo', 'Ariake nomura', 'Atrolineare', 'Attraction', 'Autumn Glory', 'Azuma murasaki'...just to name a few. Or how about 'Barrie Bergman', 'Beni kagami', 'Beni ubi gohon' which should be spelled 'Beni yubi gohon' – not meaning “five long red fingers,” but should be translated as “five red fingers,” – 'Berrima Bridge', 'Berry Dwarf', 'Boskoop Glory' etc. None of the above are even moderately popular in the trade, nor were they ever, so “popular” is a dumb tag.

Look, I know that very few want my opinion, and especially not those at Timber Press. There were a considerable amount of half-assed boners in their 1999 publication of Maples for Gardens and the 1994 printing of Maples of the World which I called the publisher out on...but he considered my reviews “vituperative” and “unwarranted.” Thankfully the dim-wit is long gone while I'm still here, but I'm less vituperative than before. I have aged and mellowed somewhat, but I'll still offer some thoughts about an interesting chapter (beginning on page 23) called Japanese Maples For Specific Purposes and Locations in the Timber Press Pocket Guide.

The maples are listed in 22 different categories:
1 Maples for spring color
2 Maples for fall color
3 Maples for winter bark
4 Dwarf Maples (to 6 ½ ft.)
5 Small Maples (6 ½ – 13 ft.)
6 Medium-sized Maples (10-16 ft.)
7 Large Maples (13-26 ft.)
8 Very Large Maples (20 ft.+)
9 Maples for Partial Shade
10 Maples for Full Sun
11 Maples for Containers
12 Maples for the Rockery
13 Maples for Bonsai
14 Dissectum Group
15 Amoenum Group
16 Palmatum Group
17 Matsumurae Group
18 Linearilobum Group
19 Maples with a Wide-spreading Habit
20 Maples with a Rounded Habit
21 Mound-shaped Maples
22 Upright Maples

Acer palmatum 'Ariadne' (autumn color left, spring color right)

Some of the cultivars are listed in more than one category, such as Acer palmatum 'Ariadne' suggested for 1) spring color, 2) small maple, 3) partial shade, 4) matsumurae group and 5) wide-spreading habit. Of course 'Ariadne' could be included in other groups such as maples for containers or for fall color.

Acer palmatum 'Corallinum'

Let's look at some examples of maples, listed in these subjective categories. For spring color...well, all maples have a spring color, it's just that some are more brilliantly colored than others. One of my favorites is A.p. 'Corallinum', and the tree depicted above used to reside in front of the office, next to our main road. Too close to the road for my comfort. One day the new UPS driver was backing up to turn around and he came within two feet of my tree. I supposed it would be impossible for UPS to accept that their driver had smashed a $5,000 tree so we dug and sold it just to be safe. At the time it was 11 feet tall by 16 feet wide (approximately 30 years old), even though the book says, “Slow growing, this cultivar makes a dense compact plant not exceeding 10 ft. (3m) high.” My sale was ten years ago, so who knows its size now? In Vertrees/Gregory Japanese Maples 4th edition, Vertrees writes, “Unfortunately the name 'Corallinum' has also been applied to the coral-bark maple 'Sango kaku'. Corallinum has also been known under the names 'Beni seigen', 'Carmineum' and 'Spring Fire'.” In the 4th edition and the Pocket Guide, Vertrees mentions seeing a fine specimen in the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens and Arboretum but the best part was left out. In the 1st edition, Vertrees relates that he was discussing with Hillier the false synonymy of 'Sango kaku' with 'Corallinum', and high-pockets Hillier remarked; “Why, they are as different as cheese and chalk.

Acer palmatum 'Hogyoku'

Included in maples for fall color is A.p.' Hogyoku' with its dependable orange color.* However, as autumn progresses the foliage can turn to deep maroon, at least at Buchholz Nursery. The name Hogyoku means “precious jewel” in Japanese. I like the strong-growing cultivar for its lustrous green leaves in summer, as well as for its autumn color; but I swear that I can look at it all day long and not ever decipher why it was named “precious jewel.”

*For what it's worth, the two photos in the Vertrees 1st edition and in the Vertrees/Gregory 4th edition are better and more apropos of 'Hogyoku' than the one selected for the “Pocket Guide.” Not to brag, but honestly I think I should have gone into publishing.

Acer palmatum 'Japanese Sunrise' 

As for maples for winter bark, the seven listed are all interesting choices. A.p. 'Beni kawa', 'Japanese Sunrise' and 'Sango kaku' are basically the same, though I'm sure that there are a few maple geeks out there that prefer one over the others for whatever reason. One mentioned, 'Fjellheim', is a dwarf that can be nice, but it's an absolute wimp for winter hardiness (USDA zone 8 or 9?) and I don't have even one on the place anymore. Strangely, while it is listed as notable for winter bark, there's neither a photograph or description in the text. Oops – Timber Press – and geeze: do I have to micro-manage everything?!

Acer palmatum 'Mikawa yatsubusa'

Acer palmatum 'Mikawa yatsubusa'

The Pocket Guide category for dwarf maples lists a number of cultivars that are not supposed to exceed 6 ½ feet (2m) tall, but a few of them can grow to two or three times that size. How interesting that recently I received an email from Alan Tabler of Oregon's Don Schmidt Nursery:

I have a favor to ask of you. I am giving a talk on 'Small Maples for Small Places' at this year's Maple Society meeting. One of the points I would like to make is that the phrase dwarf maple is usually based on a slower growth rate rather than the ultimate size. Do you have a good picture of your huge 'Mikawa yatsubusa' and its approximate size and age that I could borrow for use in the talk?...

I responded:
Alan, Attached are 2 photos, taken about 5 years ago, in spring and fall. The 'Mikawa yatsubusa' is approx. 44 years old, now about 14' tall and 22' wide. We haven't cut scions from it in over 20 years.
Also, in the past we sold a 'Kamagata' that is now about 26' tall and about 36' wide. The Vertrees/Gregory book includes it in the “dwarf” group...

I agree with Alan's point that calling a maple “dwarf” should be based on a “slower growth rate” rather than “ultimate size.” Alan works at an excellent nursery nationally famous for their maples and I look forward to his talk. Also I admit that I lie a little bit on our website descriptions for height and width for plants, that I undersize them somewhat. In other words I might have a cultivar that will grow to 15' tall in 10 years at our nursery, but I list its height at only 10' tall because the gardener who purchases the tree probably lives in a less lush environment, and he would never achieve that rate of growth.

Acer palmatum 'Tsuma gaki'

Acer palmatum 'Tsuma gaki'

Acer palmatum 'Tsuma beni'

The so-called “small maple” category is relative too. (As my uncle Albert Einstein used to say, “Everything is relative”). Some of the cultivars include two laceleafs, A.p. 'Crimson Queen' and 'Lemon Lime Lace', but I have never seen those two anywhere that grew between 6 ½' to 13' tall. I suppose if you kept staking them they would get to that height, but I've never seen it. On the other hand 'Orange Dream' and 'Ukigumo' have exceeded 13' at our nursery. So has 'Tsuma gaki'; and in the book 'Tsuma gaki' and 'Tsuma beni' are listed as separate cultivars. Masayoshi Yano, author of Book For Maples, says they are one-and-the-same, and that was my experience too...but then many of our maple starts came from somewhere, so who knows if they were correctly labeled in the first place.

Acer palmatum 'Kamagata'

The aforementioned A.p. 'Kamagata' was included in the dwarf maple section, and it's also listed as appropriate for the rockery. I have seen Vertrees's original seedling and indeed he had it planted in a mini rockery which can be seen in the booklet on page 86. I know that I've harped on this before in previous blogs, but keep in mind that an original seedling is not necessarily the prototype for what follows, especially for “dwarf” types. The original seedling is on its own roots, obviously, but grafted plants of “dwarf,” or “rockery” cultivars are usually propagated on borrowed, vigorous green rootstock and they can zoom to a size well beyond the original. Whether Timber Press gets that point or not, I don't really care; but I would have loved to discuss that observation with Vertrees, except that he is long gone. A grafted 'Kamagata', then, is not the same (at all!) as the original seedling selection. A 'Kamagata' propagated via rooted cutting might be more true to the original...I will concede.

Acer palmatum 'Villa Taranto'

Acer palmatum 'Atrolineare'

Seriously, some of the book's “categories” are kind of dumb, such as Maples with a Wide-spreading Habit, Maples with a Rounded Habit and Mound-shaped maples etc., because many cultivars can fit into these groups, and I don't think that the typical maple shopper would particularly value or seek out of any of those characteristics. As a maple grower and aficionado I know that these arbitrary groupings don't mean much to me...but maybe I'm just too jaded with my lifetime of involvement with the trees. One category that I dwell on, however, is the Linearilobum group because I've always been fascinated with those spider-like freaks, whether maples or other species of plants. The 2007 publication does not include many that I favor today, and from that point of view a 12-year-old book can be very outdated. Of the seven maples included in this category, 'Atrolineare', 'Beni otake', 'Beni ubi [sic] gohon', 'Red Pygmy', 'Shinobuga oka' and 'Villa Taranto' are dead as far as sales are concerned. That doesn't mean that they were ever bad selections, rather just that very few want them anymore...or at least from my company.

Acer palmatum 'Hubbs Red Willow' 

Acer palmatum 'Pung Kil' (reverted tree)

Now, the best selling (for me) of the “strap-leaf” cultivars – and I hate that strap/strapy/strappy term – is A.p. 'Hubbs Red Willow'. In my opinion it beats all of the other red linearilobum cultivars hands down. The foliage on our mature specimens remains regally vibrant even into September when other cultivars really fade to bronze green at this time. Another favorite is A.p. 'Pung Kil' which is a rather quirky selection from Korea. It displays very thin purple-red lobes, but often there is also present some more broad lobes, and it's that combination that makes it seem more interesting than the more “manufactured” appearance of 'Hubbs Red Willow' and 'Beni otake'. Unfortunately we recently had one tree produce all broad-lobed leaves, so I guess you can say that it had “reverted,” but then it wouldn't be the first tree to do so at Buchholz Nursery. I pulled it away from the crop so that it wouldn't be accidentally shipped, and who knows, maybe we'll top graft it with something else.

Acer palmatum 'Kinshi'

Another favorite linearilobum is A.p. 'Kinshi', a compact, rounded cultivar with very narrow green lobes. I planted seven of them near the public road at the Flora Wonder Arboretum, a gift – I guess you could say – for the motorists who speed down the hill. In autumn, which is nearly here, their foliage will turn to orange-yellow which befits the Japanese name that means “with golden threads.” Isn't it odd that I squander my family money by planting trees with the purpose of intriguing people I don't know who just happen to be driving by? Maybe I'll sell some or all of them in the future, I don't know, but if you tool down Blooming-Fernhill Road this October you will see these maples in their glory.

Peter Gregory

Well, I didn't get to all 22 categories in the Vertrees/Gregory Pocket Guide so consider yourself spared. I'll hand the book over to my employee now, and I might not ever refer to it again. But I encourage you to purchase the book if you haven't already done so, and I consider myself very fortunate to have met and “talked maples” with both of the authors.


  1. I have a small maple business in south louisiana, and quite often cultivars do not perform at all the same as they do farther north, primarily because of our much warmer nights. For example, tsuma gaki always has outstanding spring colors, while every year tsuma beni has little to none, a complete dud. I bought my source plants from Brian Upchurch, so I feel confident in their cultivar status. They really need to be trialed separately down here. Thank you so much for writing these posts. Despite the differences in performance, your insights are invaluable to me.

  2. I have a collection of 40 Japanese clones. This blog is fantastic. Beautiful pictures and good descriptions. Greetings from Poland.-francopologarden Regards.