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Japanese maples offer winter beauty

Nancy Brachey
Nancy Brachey writes about gardening for The Charlotte Observer's weekly Home & Garden section.

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  • Ask Nancy

    Q. In the summer, we moved a couple of bushes, and they turned brown – like they died. Is there any chance they will come back if we trim back, or are they gone and should be dug up and thrown out?

    A. Transplanting shrubs at that time of year was very risky. Your plants suffered transplant shock, aggravated beyond the usual by moving those plants during the stress of summer. The brown leaves will probably fall off. Check the stems to see whether they are still green inside (just snip off down a couple of inches). If so, they should leaf out again in the spring.

Leaves that so beautified the Piedmont this month with their rich colors of red, gold, yellow and bronze are floating off the branches so quickly these days it is easy to think that nothing important will show up on the trees until spring.

Not so.

Some small to medium trees and even shrubs offer a nice winter bonus that is revealed when the leaves drop and the structure of limbs and branches is clear.

This is an attribute that you can easily miss in the rush to select a tree for its spring or summer flowers and its fall color, all assets that are important in making a home landscape beautiful.

The most dramatic choice among smaller trees with sculptural significance is among a vast array of Japanese maples. Some are upright with layered branches creating a beautiful horizontal effect. A few have a weeping habit, which is a nice way of saying they droop. But they do so in such a graceful way that a weeping Japanese maple can become a major focal point of a landscape and could become one of your favorite things.

As a group, Japanese maples are on the small side, some maturing at 10 feet or so, others at possibly 20 feet after many years of growth. A vast number of varieties are on the market, each offering distinct characteristics as an ornamental plant, such as shape and silhouette.

I have a vertical Japanese maple named Bloodgood, which is one of the best known and most widely planted. I bought it more than 20 years ago at a plant sale for $1. It was a tiny thing growing in a Dixie cup. It has survived cankerworms feeding on new leaves in spring and many years of serious drought, now standing about 12 feet tall in the front yard. The autumn color of bright scarlet never fails to impress, and the shapely silhouette looks beautiful through the winter.

Many newer choices are in the garden marketplace. If you are inclined to add a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) to your landscape this tree-planting season, notice the shape and silhouette, which will be evident now that the leaves have dropped.

Waterfall, whose green leaves turn golden in autumn, is one of the smaller trees of this type. It rises to 10 feet or a bit less while presenting a very beautiful cascading effect that almost reaches the ground once it gets growing.

Besides the winter effect, Japanese maples offer a range of color in foliage. Some stay green all summer, but others such as Burgundy Lace possess beautiful leaf color through summer along with an elegant effect created by the finely cut leaves.

Japanese maples grow well in filtered light and do best when protected from the harshest rays of hot afternoon summer sun to prevent scorching of leaves. Like any tree you plant this winter, they will benefit from close attention to watering during hot, dry weather for at least the first two years after planting.

I have found they grow quite well with little attention beyond the occasional removal of the odd dead branch.

Perhaps the most important thing is to put them in a really good spot where this tree will be seen and enjoyed all year. Especially in winter, when its beautiful shape is most obvious.

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