On a snowy, gray day, what plant can add a bit of cheer in the landscape? Japanese maples, says Sue Hamilton, director of UT Gardens. Each month, the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture highlights a “Plant of the Month,” and Japanese maples get the honor for January 2017. Several selections exhibit brilliant bark color when the temperature falls – bright red or orange or yellow or coral pink, “They make quite a show in the winter landscape,” she says.
Sue says they’re also easy trees to maintain. Depending on the cultivar, the size can range from 6 feet to 25 feet tall, but many are in the 10 – 15-foot range, which makes them a good addition to almost any landscape.
“Foliage is a lime green in spring, darkening in color as summer approaches,” she says. “Fall foliage is either a bright, showy shade of yellow or a fusion of red, orange and yellow.” They do best in moist, well-drained soil that is slightly acidic. The grow in partial shade but bark coloration will be best when the tree grows in full sun, and young twigs and branches will be more color intensive that the tree trunk itself, she explains.
One more reason it’s a good choice to highlight in January: As long as the ground is not frozen, it’s a great time to plant a Japanese maple — or any tree or shrub. “Woody plants have gone dormant, and with the cooler temperatures and rainfall, it’s an ideal time to get such plants in the ground.” Trees and shrubs planted in winter typically outperform those planted in spring, Sue says.
Place the tree where it can be a focal point in the landscape, she suggests, or note the angle from which the tree will be seen in your garden and provide a backdrop of a contrasting color. “It could be the background color of your home or utility shed or the contrasting color of an evergreen,” she says. “Planting in a decorative container in a color matching the tree’s bark can be incredibly striking.” Because they are not large trees, they can also be used in mixed planting borders and in foundation plantings – just pay attention to the tree’s expected size at maturity.
Here’s Sue’s list of “Outstanding” selections of Japanese maples that stand out in winter:
‘Aka kawa hime’ has bright red bark in winter and is one of the more dwarf in this unique group of maples. Grows 6’-8’ tall and 4’-6’ wide.
‘Beni kawa’ also has bright salmon-red bark in winter. Grows 10’ tall and 8’-10’ wide.
‘Bihou’ has bark that turns orange in the winter. Grows 15 ‘tall and 8’-10’ wide.
‘Dixie Delight’ has bark that changes in the winter first to orange and then to yellow as temperatures get colder. Grows 10’-12’ tall and 6’-8’ wide.
‘Japanese Sunrise’ (pictured above) has multi-colored winter bark. One side of the tree will be bright red while the other side is a bright yellow. And in between these two colors, the bark is a fusion of yellow, orange and red. Can grow up to 25’ tall x 20’ wide.
‘Red Wood’ has coral-pink bark much like that of ‘Sango Kaku’. Known to keep good bark coloration in the old wood as well. Grows up to 12′ tall and 4’-8’ wide.
‘Sango kaku’ is known for its showy coral-pink coloration in the winter landscape. Grows up to 25’ tall and 20’ wide.
‘Winter Flame’ has showy red winter bark. Grows 8’-10’ tall and 6-8’ wide.
“This group of trees has such diversity in growth habit, foliage color, leaf-type, form and even bark color that there really is an ideal selection for every garden,” Sue says. “At last count, I have 18 different cultivars in my home landscape, and my garden is only a half-acre!”