Malee Hsu saw her first Japanese maple in Fresno 24 years ago and immediately fell in love.
“I had no idea how to grow it; I just knew I had to have one,” says Hsu, owner of Upland Nursery in Orange. Today she grafts, grows and sells a variety of Japanese maples.
“Even people who know very little about plants touch the Japanese maple leaves and tell me, ‘I love this plant. What is it?’ ” Hsu says.
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are the most airy and delicate of maples. These elegant trees, native to China, Korea and Japan, are valued for their compact size and visually appealing foliage that comes in a variety of colors, including rich gold, light to deep red, orange, all shades of green and cream. There are variegated varieties, and many change leaf color throughout the growing season.
Some Japanese maples are upright growers; others cascade. And although these small trees are deciduous, their sculptural, leafless branches are also attractive in the winter months.
So interesting and varied are Japanese maples that they can fit into just about any garden situation, says Ricardo Monte, who runs Wildwood Farm in Kenwood with his wife, Sara. The Northern California nursery specializes in maples.
“There is really no competition horticulturally for the maple; they stand alone,” Monte says. “They are soft, gorgeous plants that fit in just about anywhere.”
Japanese maples can be used as a focal point, as patio trees, as a softener of a sharp corners and as elements in a grouping. They thrive in containers and can be used for bonsai.
In addition to their unsurpassed beauty, Japanese maples are easy to grow. Given the right location, and fed and watered properly, they’ll thrive for years.
The drawback? Because they tend to be slow-growing, Japanese maples are not always readily available.
“It takes five to 10 years for a good-sized Japanese maple to develop,” Monte says. “Most grow just 4 to 8 inches a year, depending on the variety. Mass merchandisers can’t wait that long, so they don’t carry them.”
At Upland Nursery, plants range from $24 for an 8-year-old, 2-gallon tree to $240 for some varieties of 15-year-old, mature trees.
To successfully grow Japanese maples, keep the following in mind:
* Get the right location.
“Some maples are happy in full sun, but others need morning sun and afternoon protection, or they’ll get leaf burn,” Hsu says. “Find out about the proper exposure before you plant.”
* Plant in an area that has good drainage.
* Amend the soil before planting by 50% with Hsu’s suggested soil mix: 30% sandy loam soil; 30% planter mix and 40% peat moss. Peat keeps the roots cool, which is important during our hot summers. Use the same mix in containers.
* Because Japanese maples like their roots cool, it’s important to mulch them once they become established. Good mulch choices include well-aged compost, pine needles, oak-leaf mulch or Cocoa mulch.
* Keep Japanese maples well watered at all times. They should be moist but not soggy.
* Fertilize monthly during the active growing season from May to August with a fertilizer designed for acid-loving plants, such as a 20-10-10. Or feed with a slow-release fertilizer in the spring.
* Prune in June, to shape, cutting about 30% of new growth.
“The key is to thin them down so the sun can shine through,” Hsu says. They can be pruned into just about any shape.
* Rejuvenate potted plants every three years by pruning the roots. In January or February, pull the plant out of the container and prune back roots by one-third. Add fresh soil and repot.
Wildwood Farm Nursery & Gardens, (707) 833-1161, www.wildwoodmaples.com. Primarily ships 1- to 3-year-old trees.
Upland Nursery, (714) 538-4500.