Meet the autumn chameleons

Acer 'Osakazuki'

Acer 'Osakazuki'

Japanese maples can bring a statuesque beauty to any garden, large or small.
Val Bourne nominates the best

Japanese maples have it all. They’re slow-growing, long-lived and their leaves change colour like chameleons. Their elegant, intricate outlines resemble garden-sized bonsai, with leaves that can vary from simply lobed to finely cut, and turning a fiery red, or a golden-yellow or a rich marmalade-orange in autumn. It’s no wonder they’ve been popular with British gardeners for decades.
Although they’re always called Japanese maples, because they’re grown in almost every Japanese garden, Acer palmatum is also found growing wild in Eastern China, Taiwan and Korea. In the wild these shrub-like trees thrive underneath the protective mantle of taller trees. This is a good way to grow them in the garden too, in fertile soil that’s shaded by a much taller tree. They don’t like bright light or dry conditions (Asian summers include a rainy season of several weeks) and prefer reasonable drainage too. Their slow growth rate makes them very suitable for containers and this is how many gardeners grow them, although watch they don’t get waterlogged in winter.
Acer palmatum was introduced to the UK in 1820. Edward ‘Chinese’ Wilson also collected seeds in China in the early years of the 20th century, although they produced rather ordinary trees. The Japanese meanwhile had already named roughly 200 unusual forms collected in the wild over a 300-year period. It’s these named trees that are the most popular today, and Westonbirt Arboretum in Gloucestershire holds a Plant Heritage collection of 297 Japanese maple cultivars. Most are planted in the Acer Glade, the Maple Loop and in The Link in Silk Wood, where they draw gasps of admiration in autumn. Some of the trees in the Old Arboretum are more than 100 years old so well worth seeing.

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