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Many of us are familiar with maple trees, and the sight of them often brings up thoughts of pancakes and maple syrup for Pancake Day. Their tall slender forms are common in woodland and gardens around the world. Less well known to many, but now often seen at nurseries, is the dwarf maple, acer palmatum, aka the Japanese maple. This is actually a small tree that is often also classed as a shrub, as it remains quite compact in size. Its average height when allowed full growth is only about 6-10 meters on average. They also do well treated as bonsai, and have thus been used for centuries. They are native not only to Japan, where they are known as momiji, but also to parts of China and Korea.
We first encountered this tree in our own garden when our daughter began planning out her Japanese garden for our front. It actually comes in several different varieties, with differing elongations and width to the leaves, as well as different colours. Regardless, the shape remains about the same, with an umbrella type shape to the branches, though they can be trained gently with bonsai wire into different shapes. The leaf colours range from shades of green to blazing reds, and I don't mean autumnal shading from green to red, I mean the leaves grow out red from the moment they unfurl. They all like semishade, though some varieties will accept deep shade and others will do well even in full sun, and tolerate being planted in groups which looks nice if you wish to do a woodland effect. We ourselves are doing a more semi-formal style of Japanese garden, so we have one variegated green specimen planted in a strategic spot in the main garden, with alternating scarlet, reds, yellows, and green leaved cultivars in pots providing part of our border planting along our side fence by our footpath. They are ideal for this sort of small space, as the roots are very compact and non-invasive, so it you plant them alongside a paved path, they will NOT dig through, nor will they tunnel under fencing.
The leaves all range from 4-12 cm in length, and even the "fingers" of the leaves vary in number from 5, to 7, to 9. This is not merely dependent on leaf colour with say all reds having x many, but from the individual cultivar. They take alkaline soil, so if planting in a garden that contains acid loving plants, make sure the roots zones do not intermingle, or keep potted. They are hardy, so the only protection the potted trees require is to protect the pot from cracking during the cold. They should be fed a quality fertiliser in spring, as they do produce small flowers. The flowers are a lovely creamy white, and depending on the cultivar, the sepals are either a deep red or a purplish colour, and like their more well known cousins, the leaves do change with the seasons so those reds and greens change to scarlets, oranges, and browns, making momiji viewing a popular event in Japan much like cherry blossoming viewing is. Indeed, this changing of the leaf colours that heralds the change into autumn is how the plant got its Japanese name, as momiji comes from the word "momizu", which means to change colour. Regardless of the season or what you call it, their delicate branches and elegant leaf structure provide interest all year round, with the leaves and blossoms adding deft touches of colour that will catch the eye.