It is January as I write. My garden looks frost-bitten. But above a carpet of snow the branches of the coral-bark maple, Acer palmatum "Sango kaku' ("Senkaki') are brilliant red. It is my favorite Japanese maple and I've never begrudged a cent of the $40 paid for it. Most plants have their annual moment of glory, seldom more than a month, then become just part of a general greenness, and sometimes downright dishevelled. The coral-bark maple has no off-moments. It is beautiful always, and that is typical of Japanese maples.
Japan has many kinds of native maples, but two species in particular are usually meant by the term "Japanese maples.' They are Acer japonicum, and Acer palmatum. Acer japonicum, bearing its country's name, is called "full-moon' maple because the shallowly-lobed leaves are almost round and as much as six inches across. Its form A. j. "Aureum' has beautiful soft yellow leaves. Another, A. j. "Aconitifolium,' has large green leaves divided to the base into incised lobes, for which it is called the "fern-leaf maple.' This makes a sizable bush, and with time a small up-rightly branched tree. Another, A. j. "Green Cascade,' has divided and incised leaves on pendulous branches.
Strangely enough, there is a North American species, the vine maple (Acer circinatum) that is often included with "Japanese maples,' because of its strong resemblance to Acer japonicum. The vine maple comes from the Pacific Northwest. It has a fern-leaved form, "Monroe,' that is quite similar to A. j. "Aconitifolium.' As with most Japanese maples, brilliant red and yellow coloration in autumn is usual with all of these.
But what most gardeners mean by "Japanese maple' is Acer palmatum. For generations, Japanese gardeners have selected and bred exceptional forms of this naturally variable species. Well over 150 distinctive kinds can be bought from specialist nurseries in the U.S. Some of the best originated here--"Crimson Queen' and "Red Filigree Lace,' for examples. An English name does not always mean that they originated outside of Japan, as some have been rechristened. "Akaji nishiki,' for instance, is usually called "Bonfire' here.
What do Japanese maples have to offer gardeners? So much. They are of a size suited to modern gardens. The largest become small trees; many remain …