There’s an almost infinite number of ways to lay out a garden, but almost all of them make some use of shrubs and trees. These larger plants have a multitude of uses; they can serve as boundary markers, break up open spaces, provide shelter for smaller plants – even people – and serve as focal points to draw attention to themselves and their surroundings. They also serve as natural magnets for birds, animals and beneficial insects, so they enhance your garden’s natural ecosystem as well as its appearance. Of course large trees need a lot of space and not everyone can fit them in, but there are many smaller varieties and the Japanese maples – especially Acer palmatum – are popular options. If you’re a fan of weeping tree forms the “Waterfall” cultivar could be just what you’re looking for.
Waterfall is a typical, but fairly small, Japanese maple. It will grow to about six feet tall over its first ten years, but when fully mature it can reach past ten feet (although it’s rare for it to exceed twelve). It’s also a fairly wide tree, and when fully grown will be anywhere from eight to twelve feet across its branches. The branches are also very graceful, with their outer sections curving down in the classic “weeping” shape. The result is a cascade of vivid green leaves, creating the waterfall effect that gives the variety its name.
Many weeping trees tend to grow into a tall, slender form but Waterfall usually develops more of a mounded shape. Its most notable visual feature is the foliage, with the palmate leaves seeming to pour down the outside of the tree in a dense flood. Each leaf has between seven and eleven slim, lacy lobes which are deeply cut right to the base of the leaf. The leaves are dark green and have a delicate appearance; they also move easily if there’s any wind, making the whole tree appear to shimmer – another resemblance to a waterfall. The foliage holds its color well all through the spring and summer growing season. Waterfall relies heavily on its leaves for visual appeal because the reddish-purple flowers which appear in April are small and inconspicuous; however once the blooms fade in late spring the growing samaras (winged seed pods) which replace them become more obvious. When fall brings colder temperatures Waterfall suddenly changes radically, though. Its fall display is one of the most spectacular in the maple family, with the dignified green erupting into a riot of bronze, purple, crimson and yellow.
If the idea of having a Waterfall maple in your garden appeals to you the first thing to do is work out whether or not you’re in a suitable area. You’ll probably find that you are, because it’s quite a robust tree – it can thrive in USDA plant hardiness zones 5 to 9. That makes it a viable option through most of the continental USA with the exception of far northern parts of New England and the Midwest, where winter temperatures are too low, or in the driest parts of the Southwest. Anywhere else it should be possible to grow one successfully, although some additional work may be required. For example it doesn’t like dry soil, so if you live in a dry area you’ll need to arrange regular water for it. In general Waterfall prefers slightly acidic, organically rich soils. It also needs to be moist but well drained.
Location is also important for this tree. In the northern part of its range it can safely be left exposed to full sunlight, but where the sun is stronger it can scorch new growth. Look for a spot where it gets plenty of sun in the mornings but at least partial shade in the afternoons. Keeping the soil around the roots moist will also make a big difference; four inches of organic mulch helps with this. Because it’s a weeping tree Waterfall can be damaged by strong winds, so if you can find a spot that’s sheltered from the worst of the wind that will be a good place. Avoid sun traps.
Like most Japanese maples Waterfall is a fairly low maintenance tree. It may require some staking to help it attain a fully rounded form. Pruning is not usually required and is best avoided unless necessary. If you do need to prune your Waterfall avoid the traditional times of spring and early summer, as the tree may suffer from excessive bleeding. Instead cut away the excess between late fall and midwinter, when its metabolism is at its slowest.
A Waterfall maple isn’t just an attractive addition to your garden; it’s also a practical one. While it’s too small to make much of a shade tree its cascading foliage will provide enough shade to protect smaller, delicate plants. It also forms a natural refuge for small birds and animals, and while the flowers aren’t showy they will attract butterflies and other insects. This compact but impressive Japanese maple will enhance any space you choose to plant it in, and we highly recommend that every gardener considers it seriously.