Dear Readers, I have always been entranced by the delicate beauty of the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) but have never had much success with growing them. My first attempt was on my balcony in Islington, which is a most unhappy location for a woodland plant – the poor thing was alternatively blasted by the wind, baked by the sun and then nearly knocked flat with rain. The leaves shrivelled and fell off, and I soon realised that I’d need to grow something that liked being exposed to the elements. A second attempt, in the heavy clay soil of my current garden, also produced a sad specimen rather than the glorious autumn-hued plant that I saw on the label. Oh well. Recently, I have spent a lot of time admiring other people’s plants instead. Sometimes, one knows when one is beat.
Our local garden centre certainly has a wide range of very tempting cultivars, nearly all of which have the ‘hand-shaped’ leaves which give the plant its species name ‘palmatum’. Japanese maple comes originally not just from Japan but from the areas roundabout too: Korea, China, eastern Mongolia and southeastern Russia. In Japan, the plant has been cultivated for centuries, and has the alternative names of kaede (‘frog-hand’) and momiji (‘baby-hand’). In ‘the wild’, Japanese maple grows as an understorey shrub or small tree in woodland, rarely getting to taller than 10 metres. When mature, the tree has a characteristic dome shape, which is sometimes also emulated in Bonsai.
Even in the wild, Japanese maple is a very variable tree, with different leaf-forms, habits and colours. It also hybridises with other species. It is therefore no surprise that there are hundreds of different cultivars of the tree available today, with hundreds of others lost during the years. The photo below gives just some idea of the variety of leaf-forms alone.
For most people in the UK, the delight of a Japanese maple comes from its autumn leaf-colour. The saplings in the garden centre were largely dropping their leaves, but enough were holding on to get some idea of what the plant would look like in its prime.
I wasn’t aware that you could also grow Japanese maple for its bark colour, in much the same way as you would plant dogwood, but here is a cultivar that I’d never come across before. Apparently ‘coral-bark’ or ‘golden-bark’ Acers are ‘a thing’. I live and learn.
The flowers of the Japanese maple seem to be the least interesting thing about a plant that certainly punches above its weight in all other aspects. The fruit produces a winged seed, or samara, that needs to be stratified(frozen for a time) in order to germinate.Reading the Royal Horticultural Society website on Japanese maples, I start to see what I’ve done wrong in the past. The trees need shade, which is obvious once you know what their natural habitat is. They also need consistent water conditions, and loathe being water-logged. All this makes me think that maybe I’ll try again, in a container this time. I have a shady garden, after all.
In Japan, the planting of a maple tree indicates that autumn is seen as a friend, as part of the cycle of life. People in North America often make special trips to view the ‘fall colour’, and a similar expedition may be made by Japanese people, although the viewing of the maples has more of a spiritual component: it is seen as a way of communing with nature, and with the spirits of nature. There is a fascinating discussion of this, and of the relationship between the Japanese maple and art, on the prints of Japan website, and I would like to quote just a smidgen here;
‘Bruce Feiler in his 1991 volume Learning to Bow describes making friends with a Japanese fellow who explained the background and significance of maple viewing to the Japanese: “Certain natural phenomena because of their splendor and singular beauty, developed almost a religious significance in ancient Japanese culture, where Shinto beliefs held that nature was the home of spirits who lived in the water, the land, and the trees. The mysterious transformation of green leaves into fiery reds and frosty yellows around the time of the harvest every year inspired awe among superstitious farmers. Just as a protocol around making tea… or painting calligraphy… so a proper form of viewing nature eventually evolved.” Feiler continued: “According to the Shinto code, the viewer on a proper leaf-viewing excursion should try to achieve a personal communion with the leaves, in a bond akin to the private communication between man and god at he heart of many Western religions. As Prince Genji once wrote to a lover, ‘A sheaf of autumn leaves admired in solitude is like damasks worn in the darkness of the night.’ By entering nature, one hopes to internalize the beauty of the leaves in one’s heart. Man enters nature, and nature, in turn, enters man.”’
The idea of the interconnection between nature and humanity, the notion that we don’t just go to admire the leaves but to internalise their beauty, seems part of what is missing in our lives these days.
The gardens in Kyoto are especially famous for their beautiful maples, and there is a rather fine little film here, which I guarantee will reduce your resting pulse-rate.
I was surprised to find that Japanese maple leaves are deep-fried and eaten as a snack in Osaka, and have been for at least a thousand years. The ones from the city of Minoh are especially prized – they are preserved in barrels of salt for a year, then dipped into tempura batter. Apparently the tree can also be ‘tapped’ for maple syrup, like its North American relatives, though the sap is not as sugary.
The leaves were thought to have preservative properties, and apples and root vegetables were sometimes buried in them in the belief that they would last longer.
And finally, friends, I cannot end this piece without including the poem ‘Japanese Maple’ by Clive James. When I was growing up, he was a constant feature on TV shows such as ‘Clive James on Television’, which introduced the UK to such shows as ‘Endurance’, a kind of Japanese precursor to ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ and possibly even more sadistic. But later, I discovered him as a poet, and a philosopher, and grew to see beyond the ‘larrikin’ exterior to a man of great nuance and sensitivity. He was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and wrote this poem as a farewell in 2013. He then survived a further six years following an experimental drug treatment, and in an interview described himself as ‘feeling embarrassed’ to still be alive. He died earlier this week, and I hope that he was able to see his tree aflame against the amber brick.
Japanese Maple by Clive James
Your death, near now, is of an easy sort.
So slow a fading out brings no real pain.
Breath growing short
Is just uncomfortable. You feel the drain
Of energy, but thought and sight remain:
Enhanced, in fact. When did you ever see
So much sweet beauty as when fine rain falls
On that small tree
And saturates your brick back garden walls,
So many Amber Rooms and mirror halls?
Ever more lavish as the dusk descends
This glistening illuminates the air.
It never ends.
Whenever the rain comes it will be there,
Beyond my time, but now I take my share.
My daughter’s choice, the maple tree is new.
Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that. That will end the game
For me, though life continues all the same:
Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.
Photo One by By Rüdiger WölkThis photo was taken by Rüdiger Wölk. Please credit this photo Rüdiger Wölk, Münster.View all photos (large page) of Rüdiger WölkI would also appreciate an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with details of use.
Photo Two by By Jeffrey O. Gustafson – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2680250
Photo Three by By Abrahami – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1327092
Photo Four by Sten Porse [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)]
Photo Five by Anja Steindl from https://www.flickr.com/photos/94958741@N08/8905190448