Brenda Belus fell in love with Japanese maples about eight years ago.
The romance bloomed when she received a copy of the definitive book, "Japanese Maples," by J. P. Vertrees, as a Christmas gift."I'm usually not much of a book person, but I couldn't put this one down," Belus said.
She started collecting Japanese maples, adding seven the first year and one or two each year afterward. Now she has 23 in the front and rear yards of her suburban Memphis home.
Native to temperate forests of the Orient, many varieties of Japanese maples thrive in the more temperate areas of the United States, particularly in southern areas where night-time temperatures can be stressful to other plants.
"They have year-round interest," says Mark Pitts, owner of Fantastic Plants, a Memphis-based mail order firm specializing in Japanese maples, conifers and other ornamental trees.
They also add color to yards and gardens. In the spring, the red-leafed varieties show their most intense colors. Some varieties, such as Bloodgood, also produce bright red seed pods in early summer.
In the fall, the leaves of Japanese maples turn brilliant shades of gold, yellow, red and even purple. When they lose their leaves, multi-stemmed, muscular, sometimes contorted trunks add a sculptural silhouette to winter landscapes.
Especially prized in the winter is the coral bark Japanese maple, whose bark turns a brilliant coral color after its leaves fall.
"I've always loved trees, but I have a small lot, so I need small ones," says Belus. Her largest Japanese maple was acquired before she started collecting. Only 2 feet tall 17 years ago, it is now about 15 to 16 feet, with a limb span of about the same size.
Most Americans refer to all of the small Oriental-style maples as Japanese, but some are native to Korea and China.
Prized in Oriental landscapes for 300 years, they reached a peak in popularity in the mid-1600s to the late 1700s, Vertrees writes.
Interest in them waned in the early 1900s, and fewer cultivars were widely propagated. During the war years of the 1940s, many old maples in Japan were cut down and burned for fuel.
But for the past 25 years, they have been widely used by landscapers and gardeners all over the world. There are from 250 to 300 cultivars available commercially.
Understanding the types and names of Japanese maples is perplexing. Not only are they labeled in Latin botanical names, but they have Japanese nomenclature as well.
The full botanical name of one of Belus' favorite trees is Acer japonicum f. aconitifolium "Maiku Jaku." Luckily it has two English names as well, Dancing Peacock and Fernleaf.
The trees' Latin and Japanese names roll off the tongues of collectors like Belus and professional plant people, but novices find them unintelligible. Fortunately, most have common names as well.
About 15 varieties of Japanese maples can be studied in a grove at the Memphis Botanic Garden, which is situated between the Japanese Garden and the children's conservatory. The trees have been donated over a period of five years by tree expert Plato Touliatos as a memorial to his father, Dan Touliatos.
"Like most people, my dad loved colorful plants," says Touliatos.
Most gardeners will approach a nursery with an idea of the kind of tree they want. It will likely be one of two major types: an upright variety with red or green leaves or a weeping form with lacy red or green leaves.
Weeping lace-leaf Japanese maples typically stay under 5 feet tall.
"They are really like large shrubs," Pitts said.
Pitts grafts cultivars such as the lacy Crimson Queen and upright Bloodgood onto the roots of Acer palmatum atropurpureum, the naturally occurring form of tree from which many others have been hybridized.
Grafting guarantees the new plant will be exactly like the parent plant. With seedlings, each child-plant is an individual with a unique scramble of genes from its parents so its leaf color and size and growth habits are hard to predict.
The leaves of grafted plants are more likely to hold their red colors than seedlings, but even some of them may show bits of green or bronze as summer wears on.
"The most successful color for photosynthesis is green," says Touliatos. "Anything out of that norm is at a disadvantage."
A maple with red leaves will have only half the ability to use light to make food as one with green leaves, says Touliatos. "Green-leafed trees are much stronger than red-leafed trees."
But since most trees used in home landscapes get pampered, the red-leafed varieties survive fine.
While Japanese maples with red leaves are perhaps the most dramatic examples, many green-leafed varieties are also well-loved.
The light green foliage Golden Full Moon is tinged in rusty pink color in early summer. Osakazuki, a favorite of Touliatos, has 3-inch leaves, some of the largest of all Japanese maples. Those large leaves turn intensely crimson in the fall. Vertrees calls it the "most brilliant of all cultivars in fall coloration."
Butterfly is a variety that produces bluish to pale green leaves edged in cream on a stiffly upright tree, reaching about 10 to 12 feet.
All Japanese maples do best when they are grown in some shade in slightly acidic soil, but they can take some sun.
Besides losing their red coloration, the edges of the leaves of some Japanese maples will scorch or burn if they have no relief from the sun.
Belus has most of her Japanese maples in the sun because those are the conditions in her yard.
"In the shade they have a more layered look," says Belus. "Mine tend to be more dense."
During their first year, newly planted Japanese maples need to be evenly watered. After that, they require little maintenance.
"Sometimes I shape them a little," says Belus. Major pruning is best done in the winter when the tree is dormant. "The fertilizer I use on the grass is enough for them."
Belus pays $28 to $40 for 2-year-old grafted upright trees from a mail order company. Lace-leafed weepers start at about $60.
Turley says his prices range from $4.98 for small seedlings to $225 for a 21-year-old tree.
Because lace-leafed weepers are slower growing than uprights, their prices are higher.