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Ask a Master Gardener: Japanese Maples and the Language of Leaves

By: Maarten Van der Giessen, 2024 Lifetime Achievement Award Recipient, Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association and President, Van der Giessen Nursery, Inc.


Oridono Nishiki.  I think that’s the beginning of the problem.  You see, when we talk about the world, we use two things: experience and language.  When we’re talking about Japanese Maples those two concepts fail us.  Here, let me explain.

When we talk about variegation, we only have one word: variegation.  Everything else is an adjective.  In Japan, on the other hand, there are at least two dozen words for variegation.  It’s like we’re talking to Eskimos about snow.  Yeah, it’s snowing.  Fluffy, powdery, sticky, icy, or wet snow means that we must resort to adjectives.  The problem is that we really don’t have twenty-four adjectives to describe variegation.  And without language, it’s hard for us to appreciate, much less convey subtle differences.  Does the leaf have a red tip?  Then it’s Tsumabeni, a Crimson Fingernail.  Does the leaf have fine sprays of color that extend from the center like a fountain?  It’s Fukiagi Shibori, the fountain tie-dye variegation.

So what?  Why does this matter to us?  In truth, to most folks it doesn’t.  They do well to recognize that pretty, red tree in the neighbor’s yard as a Japanese Maple.  Forty five percent of Americans do not have a garden.  Most of the ones that do are more concerned about tomato bottom rot and hornworms than the ornamental diversity in maples.  And that’s a shame, which brings me to our next problem: experience.

A couple of generations ago our ancestors came down to Alabama.  They came from Connecticut, Virginia, and the hills of Tennessee.  Their grandparents largely came from Europe.  They planted Japanese Maples in our Saharan full sun, and they languished.  I was told as a young man that you simply couldn’t grow them well in Mobile, and as a good Southern Baptist raised youth, I took them at their word. 

It wasn’t until I visited the garden of the late Dr John Allen Smith in Chunchula almost forty years ago that I began to question my faith.  Dr Smith had several hundred varieties of Japanese maple growing happily under the protection of longleaf pine in his garden.  Our forefather’s flawed assumption was that the Virginia highlands and the Coastal Plain of Alabama were the same place, and that all Japanese maples were alike.

And what Maples!  Some were fifty feet tall.  Some were three feet tall and spread out like a cushion.  They were every shade of red, orange, gold, and yellow I could imagine.  They had broad, flat leaves like a small sycamore, and dainty leaves like the feathers of a hummingbird.  And yes, there were twenty-four different variegations.

I went to the local garden centers and what did I find?  I found the same pretty, red trees that I saw in the neighbor’s yard.  There is no mass market for diversity, and nurseries are not altruistic nonprofit businesses.  Nurseries have for years sold the variety ‘Bloodgood’, which has long been a synonym for red Japanese maple.  No matter what it is, if it’s red it’s ‘Bloodgood’.

Fortunately, the world has changed.  You no longer must be invited to the private garden of a well-to-do dentist to see maple diversity.  Mobile Botanical Gardens planted over a hundred select maples a few years ago.  Every spring and fall they put on a stunning display of everything that Japanese maples have to offer.  And you can find them!  Websites like the Nickols brothers offer hundreds of maples from their collection.  If you want to shop locally Mobile Botanical Gardens offers a few unique varieties in their spring and fall plant sales. 

In short, you can get them.  So why not?  Gardening is a celebration of the beauty inherent in the world around us.  To garden is to dance through life.  And Oridono Nishiki?  It means ‘The rich colored fabric of the Master’.

Editor’s Note:  Several varieties of Japanese Maples will be available at the Mobile Botanical Garden’s Plantasia Plant Sale March 15-16 (see below).  You can review an online list of specific varieties of all plants beginning February 29th.

Kotohimesfa by Maarten Van der Giessen

Palmatifolium by Maarten Van der Giessen

Hubbs willow 2 by Maarten Van der Giessen

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