Vaughn: Japanese maple trees are a joy of color and variety

My family was on the road a bunch over the Thanksgiving holiday week. I had also been traveling some the couple of weeks prior to our annual Thursday turkey themed dining extravaganza for work-related meetings.

I had thought that our fall colors in the natural forest were pretty much spent, especially with the heavy rains we have been having with these late season tropical storms. When rolling back into town this past Sunday, I noticed that fall colors on Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) were off the charts. They were everywhere with the oranges, reds and yellows being spectacular.

Campbell Vaughn is the UGA Agriculture and Natural Resource agent for Richmond County.
Campbell Vaughn is the UGA Agriculture and Natural Resource agent for Richmond County.

It is hard not to like a Japanese maple. They are small- to medium-sized trees that are native to southeast Korea and south/central Japan. They do well in zones 5-8, which includes most of Georgia and South Carolina. They are reveled for their forms ranging from upright to weeping to spreading. The leaf textures range from very fine to almost medium. The bark can also vary from a green to burgundy red. During the growing season and depending on the variety, the leaves can be red, orange, green, yellow or mixed types of variegation. When fall rolls around like this week, they will wow you with a next level color brightness.

I was tasked with finding a place to take the family Christmas card this past Sunday. While wandering around the house looking for a wall to stand by to pose for the latest installment of the Vaughn family Christmas, I peeked out the front window to see my Japanese maple in my front yard was aglow. It was a striking mixture of red leaves at the top filtering to oranges and to the regular season green all at the same time. Needless to say, we moved the picture to the front lawn in front of my Acer palmatum.

There is usually some place in the landscape for a Japanese maple, but the growth tends to be slow to moderate, so you are not going to get a quick tree. The branching has a layered look with dense branches that tend to spread. My observations have been that these ornamental beauties usually need protection from intense sun. The finer the texture of the leaves, the less tolerance the plant has for full exposure to the sun. The bigger leaved Japanese maples like ‘Bloodgood’ tend to handle a good bit more exposure. For best results, I suggest filtered sun at a minimum to more heavy shade for the finer leaved varieties. Young leaves of this species are sensitive to late frost and don’t like periods of drought.

There are almost 1,000 varieties of Acer palmatum and most cultivars have to be grafted. They can be grown in a single trunk form as well as a multi-trunk tree. With so many to choose from, I have a few that are good “go to” varieties.

The aforementioned ‘Bloodgood’ is a dark red leaf variety that is upright and one of the larger Japanese maples on the market. Reaching more than 20 feet, ‘Bloodgood’ handles a lot of sun. The reason for it being called “Bloodgood’ is that the already red leaves turn the color of blood in the fall in an amazing display.

One of my personal favorites is “Sango-kaku” which is commonly referred to as Coral Bark maple. I love this one for the contrast it provides. Coral Bark maple is a yellow leaved variety with the trunk and all the branches being a coral red. You can see the red/pink color branching while it has it leaves, but the uniqueness of the tree is the show it provides when all the leaves have shed. The coral color from top to bottom adds so much life to a normally drab winter landscape.

For smaller weeping like varieties, I enjoy ‘Crimson Queen’ and “Red Dragon”. These two have deep red leaves and have a wide spreading form. One that would get 8 feet would be well aged. They are slower to grow, but are great for protected courtyards, planters, gentle hillsides and a focal tree around a water feature.

I feel like I could talk Japanese maples for hours. There is so much that they offer to most any landscape with some protection from super intense sun. Keep a look out this weekend because those colorful leaves will be gone real soon.

This article originally appeared on Augusta Chronicle: Japanese maple trees are a joy of color and variety, says Vaughn