One of the best features of Japanese Maples is their fall color, but after that there is not so much to see, and during winter many are brown or perhaps green. The idea of making each plant valuable for four seasons is a great guide when choosing plants, so why not add a fourth season to your Japanese Maple trees too? By making the right selection from among the many varieties of these trees, you can have interest from the bark and winter twigs – something that is often overlooked in the garden, but that adds a whole extra dimension to the appreciation of our plants.
Japanese Maples with Colorful Winter Twigs
There are several Japanese Maples renowned for their winter twigs, whose color and interest rival that of popular shrubs like the red-twig dogwoods. The most well-known is the variety usually called the Coral Japanese Maple, or by is Japanese name of ‘Sango-Kaku’. This lovely small tree is upright, and can reach 20 feet tall in time, but remains only 6 or 8 feet wide. The leaves are yellow-green in spring, with red edges, and mature to a beautiful light green for the summer. They have the characteristic narrow lobes of Japanese Maples, and because those lobes are a little wider than in many others, this tree is more resistant to summer scorching, and it is very suitable for hotter zones, where more delicate varieties regularly shrivel in the heat. In fall the leaves turn a brilliant light yellow, but it is in winter that this tree really shines. All the younger branches are coral red, making a gorgeous display in the winter sunlight. The color develops best in the sun, so it is fortunate that this variety is tougher than many, since it will grow well in full sun. Use it as a small specimen tree in an open area, or on the southern edge of a woodland. Once it is established and growing well, some spring pruning will encourage lots of strong new stems, giving the maximum amount of red twigs the following winter.
Less well known, but equally exotic in winter, is the Golden Bark Japanese Maple, called ‘Bihou’. Harder to find, but worth tracking down, this gorgeous tree also has the brilliant fall colors associated with Japanese maples. Smaller than the Coral Japanese Maple, it reaches just 7 to 12 feet tall, so it is ideal for a small garden, a courtyard, or around your house. Like ‘Sango-Kaku’ it has slightly broader leaves, so it to is more resistant to heat and sun. The green leaves turn fabulous shades of gold, yellow and orange in fall, and this tree really glows. Then, when the last leaf has fallen, we can see the beautiful apricot-yellow twigs, which hold their color all winter long, adding a lovely note to the calm feel of the winter garden.
Japanese Maples with Unique Bark
Like twig color, we perhaps pay too little attention to the texture of bark, but it is an important part of the esthetic feel of our gardens. Most Japanese maples have relatively smooth bark – attractive but not stunning. Some, however, have bark that is truly tactile, and one variety in particular stands out in this category.
This is the Rough Barked Japanese Maple, known in Japan as ‘Arakawa’. If you choose this variety you get not only unique bark, but a tree that is considered by maple experts to have the very best pure-red leaf color in fall of all the many varieties of Japanese maple available. We would covert it for that alone, but this tree has extraordinary bark. New twigs are smooth and green, but very soon they begin to thicken. This happens not as it does in most trees, but by the development of very corky lenticels. These are the tiny marks on tree twigs – noticeable in flowering cherries for example, that allow oxygen into the stems, breathing holes if you will. These consist of open, corky cells, and in ‘Arakawa’ they grow rapidly into large masses of cork – so large they fuse together, making an extremely rough and textured bark, even on relatively young twigs and branches. The dark gray bark becomes deeply furrowed and ridged, so that even a young tree looks like it has endured through centuries, becoming weathered and worn, but still surviving. In Japan this is one of the most popular varieties grown, because the Japanese revere age and maturity, and this tree really shows it. This tree will reach 20 feet or more in height, and a similar size across, so it makes a fabulous specimen, but remember to give it the room to mature fully.
Display Bark Colors and Textures Effectively
The idea of creating a bonsai immediately comes to mind when you see the Rough Barked Japanese Maple, and really, the same is true for the Coral Bark and Golden Bark trees too. Now full-blown bonsai is a skilled matter, calling for root pruning and growing in small containers, but you can achieve a similar effect using a larger pot, just with pruning and some simple training. Japanese maples have fine root systems, and they thrive in pots and planters for many years. For a long life it is important to have good drainage, and today you can often find ‘tree compost’ in garden centers. This has coarse crushed stone in it, but if you can’t find it for your tree, then add coarse gravel to regular potting soil. About 20% by volume is about right. This way you can water regularly, as these trees need, but without making the soil in the pot constantly wet, which can almost inevitably lead to root diseases. Make sure that the container has good-sized drainage holes too.
Now you can prune your tree as you wish, so for example with the Rough Barked Japanese Maple you would want to expose plenty of trunk, keeping the foliage at the ends of the branches, perhaps in broad, spreading clusters. When young you can bend the stems at angles, or spread them horizontally, using canes and temporary ties. For the Japanese maples with colored twigs, the goal is to have a crown of new shoots of a good length, for the most color. To achieve this, trim back in spring to a constant framework, removing many of the young shoots from previous years. This will produce a whole new crop of longer twigs, with the best coloring. In a container you should make sure you feed your tree regularly, especially if you are going to trim off a lot of twigs each year. You can do this in a container, or out in the garden, but a tree like this on a balcony or patio would be a real feature, and you could move it to give it special prominence in winter. In the garden, situate a tree like this in front of evergreens, so that you create a brilliant color contrast of the bright twigs against a dark background.