In the Garden:
Mid-Atlantic
October, 2006
Regional Report

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Combining cutleaf maple trees with evergreens in an ornamental bed provides a variety of shapes, different leaf textures, and year-long color.

Maples For Year-Round Beauty

Orange and yellow crowns of sugar maples; rich ruby and bright scarlet clusters of red maple foliage. Come autumn, it's easy to spot maple trees from afar on hills and valleys, in housing developments, and along city streets. The native sugar (Acer saccharum) and European red (Acer rubrum) are the large maples of choice on the east coast, notes Andrew Bunting, curator of the Scott Arboretum in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

Choice Maples
New England's prominent sugar maple with its craggy gray-brown bark, round and upright form, and large leaves is the quintessential landscape plant from the eastern seaboard into the Midwest. This North American species maple "is just as good as any cultivar," Bunting told Maple Society members attending their annual meeting at the Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania. Another plus: This maple syrup source only needs a little occasional pruning to remove dead wood.

On the Atlantic coast though, we have a love affair with the introduced smooth Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). This medium-sized tree's beautiful branch structure and bark, and exquisite fall color make it very popular with homeowners, landscapers, and arboretums. "It's an excellent year-round tree," said Bunting. In nature, Japanese maple is an understory tree, growing under larger trees. For ornamental use, it's best to plant these maples where they'll get afternoon shade and have moist soil during summer, he advised.

At 25 to 30 feet tall, Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' and 'Crimson Queen' are yard and garden favorites, but there are so many cultivars that there's bound to be a shape, color, and size just right for any landscape situation. The same holds true for full moon maples (Acer japonicum). They're versatile enough for large or small gardens, intimate spaces, courtyard gardens, even decorative containers. Their summer and fall foliage spans the rainbow -- variegated cream and green, red, purple, red to green, nearly chartreuse, etc.

Maples with distinctly cut, multilobed leaves are called cutleaf maples. Foliage may have jagged edges or narrow, lacy, or curly lobes. Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium', with its orange to fire engine-red autumn foliage is one striking cutleaf maple. Very narrow, fragile leaves belong to cutleaf Acer dissectum maples, also called threadleaf or scissorleaf maples.

For four seasons of beauty, Bunting likes to cluster Japanese maples in front of a background of evergreens -- cedars, pines, and cypress (such as Nootka, Hinoki, Leyland).

(One caution: In some areas, such as southeastern Pennsylvania and upper New York state, Japanese maples easily seed into nearby woods. Deer bypass these exotic seedlings, preferring to devour native maple seedlings.)

Avoid This One
Maple enthusiasts gave a resounding "thumbs down" to the Norway maple (Acer plantanoides). This European invasive is a regional problem. University of Wisconsin horticulture professor Sue Wiegrefe explained that the Norway outcompetes other trees and shrubs. Its superior shade tolerance, aggressive root system, and prolific winged fruits make it more than a thug. It's an environmental threat. First to leaf out in spring, the Norway's canopy reduces light to plants underneath. This decreases genetic diversity by shading out native species that supply food and shelter for wildlife.


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