Japanese Maples – Tilt’s Baker’s Dozen “ Gotta-Have-Ums”

Hello Everyone,

I love our Alabama native plants and will stand in the middle of some Virginia sweetspires, Oakleaf hydrangeas or Summersweets and shout about the virtues and benefits of using our native plants to keep Alabama, Alabama. However, when the very caring, passionate native plant purists campaign to plant nothing but natives, I begin to hurt thinking about all the plants I would have to give up. First on that list are Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). I enjoy deep, heart-felt year-round pleasure looking at colors, textures, forms and sizes of this diverse group of plants. Life would not be the same without these jewels from the Orient. They also bring a source of pride and accomplishment when I get my grafts to take and I propagate my own collection to share with friends and family. I don’t sell anything, not because I am against money, it is just one of those things I can do that puts a smile on peoples' faces. A Japanese maple is a gift they will enjoy for life. And, if it dies, I don’t have to hear about what I did wrong. Everyone needs at least one to enjoy and there are hundreds from which to choose.

I was going to give you the benefit of my agonizing struggle to reduce them to my top ten “gotta-have-ums”. I failed at this task but was able to offer a baker’s dozen of my favorites. If you talk to other people who grow and cherish their maples, there may be some overlap but they could easily disagree and I could change my mind with a little urging. This is today’s list with a short reason why you need to embrace my vision of greatness among the Japanese maple cultivars. I think you need diversity of color, texture, size and form. You need yellow, red, and orange fall color, green and red stems, variegated, large, lacy and needle-like leaves, weeping and upright forms to get the full excitement of this group of plants. Here is my list of incredible Japanese maples:

'Toyama nishiki'
'Beni Shien'
'Kagiri nishiki'
'Orange Dream'
'Koto no hito'
'Beni kumo no su'
'Sango kaku'

'Bloodgood' is the standard for upright red but I like 'Moonfire'.

Both do well but 'Moonfire' holds its red color well in our hot full sun. Sun boosts photosynthesis and sugars which makes the red pigment. So, if you move a red Japanese maple to the shade, you may see it revert to a greenish-red. Some reds also burn along the edges in full sun. An advantage of 'Moonfire' and 'Bloodgood' is that they are immune to southern intense sunshine if moisture is available. 'Moonfire' has an eye-catching dark red fall color.

Moonfire in the sun

Moonfire in the shade


An upright tree with heat tolerance and a unique dark purplish color is 'Trompenburg', an introduction from the Netherlands. This tree won the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society. The leaf color is unique but the lobes of the leaf are also curved or convex which adds to its elegance and deserves a niche in your garden.


The best of the best of red weeping dissectums is ‘Orangeola’.

There would be plenty of arguments over this one but one of my Alabama grafting mentors, Harold Johnston of Tallassee, AL, planted a number of cultivars along a raised concrete block wall. 'Orangeola' was the most prolific weeper. It quickly draped down the wall creating a curtain over the harsh blocks. It is a screaming red in the fall.


The green weeping dissectums are not as numerous and do not receive the acclaim or focus of the red weeping cultivars but you gotta-have-um! There are not as many cultivars from which to choose and they do not separate as distinctly and easily into favorites. 'Viridis' and 'Waterfall' are the most common and readily available in the trade. 'Waterfall' just conjures up a better image to receive the best-of-the-best nod.

Contrast is so important in the garden and the spring green vs red and the fall yellow vs red creates excitement and interest. The soft texture of the weeping dissectums also offers peace and tranquility to a seating area and elegance to an entrance-way.


Speaking of Harold Johnston, he introduced probably one of the most unique variegated Japanese maples, 'Beni Shien'.

He gave it a Japanese name that translates to what he called purple smoke for the purplish leaves with red, cream and white variegation on crinkled, gnarled, twisted beautiful leaves. Harold likes to challenge you to find 2 leaves that were just the same. It is truly a beauty and a legitimate challenge to find 2 identical leaves. From a distance it is just reddish but it is one I visit often to see what new artistic patterns or swirls it has to offer.


The only upright green dissectum (cutleaf) cultivar is ‘Seiryu’. This is a fine textured, tall spreading tree that, in my yard, is 20 ft tall and equally as wide in 15 years.

It is a soft textured maple that goes well with other coarse textured maples or plants. When it gets tall enough to look up through the leaves, it creates special light patterns as the small leaves break up the light into shimmering, dancing rays. It has orange to burgundy fall color and, like the others, a special plant every time you see it.


Another fine textured, linear lobed, almost needle-like leaf cultivar is ‘Koto no hito’ which literally means 'harps of string' in Japanese. It is a slower growing plant but my experience is that it grows about 8 to 10 ft tall and 4 ft wide in 10 to 12 years.

This tree is a conversation piece in the garden. It is named appropriately for its unique dripping string-like leaves with some of the older leaves oddly expanding a little. Odd but beautiful is the feeling you get from this plant and some nice, nice yellow fall color.


Yellow takes me to ‘Orange Dream’. I was so excited to hear this name. I thought I had found a tree to be an Auburn Japanese Maple but it is partially misnamed. The Dream fits but the leaves are yellow which is a wonderful contrast to the reds and greens and can brighten and liven-up a shady corner.

With different light, soil or location the literature reports early orange color but I have not seen it yet. With reds, purples, variegated, yellows, oranges and varying shades of green, you can make an interesting landscape with nothing but Japanese maples.


I love variegated plants. There is an upright tree and a weeping dissectum counterpart called 'Kagiri nishiki' (no photo at this time) and 'Toyama nishiki', respectively, that have bright white and green leaves. Both of these shine in partially shaded areas. You do not see these often in the landscape. When you do, you know you are in a landscape of plant connoisseurs. It is sad that these have not reached the mainstream of backyard gardens because every gardener deserves the pleasure of their company. Butterfly is another upright variegated maple close to 'Kagiri nishiki' if this one is hard to find.


There are many other forms of variegation and patterns to choose from in the world of Japanese maples. The one that I cherish each spring comes with the garbled name of 'Kasagiyama', which I am sure is very meaningful in Japanese. It has taken on meaning to me because each year for a short time, like spring flowers, the leaves unfurl with a breathtaking pinkish interveinal color with deep purple veins.

It is a slower growing small tree with leaves that look like 100’s of pink flowers popping out each year. It is one of those plants that you would tell anyone who was asking you to schedule an away visit during that time of the year that you needed to stay home to watch the annual rebirth of your Kasagiyama. Of course that is when you become the crazy gardener and your children apologize for your eccentricities.


A surprise maple that makes its statement during fall and winter is 'Sango kaku'. Red is the color of choice for many new Japanese maple fans but the green seedlings often offer the sparks and fireworks of the explosive bright red colors in the fall. 'Sango kaku' (coral bark maple) offers the surprise of bright yellow in the fall to contrast with many of your other maples and fall plants. It is a pleasing but ho-hum yellow green color for the rest of the year. Then a second surprise presents itself as a yellow carpet of dropped leaves litter the ground beneath the small tree. RED! The stems are bright red! When put in front of a glossy-green 'Nellie R. Stevens' holly, the red offers a focal point for the winter garden.

Up north where they have much of the white winter stuff, it is truly a ruby nestled in pearls but we can still get a Wow-moment in the South with a proper backdrop. It loses a little of the red on older branches but we also lose a little pzazz with age. By that time the sparkle fades, it has become an integral part of your garden family.


Hold your breath and your checkbook, (if we use checks anymore), for ‘Beni kumo no su’! Beni who? It grows on you. One of the true treasures of the Japanese maple world is 'Beni kumo no su' (red spider web).

It is a slow growing small red shrub with a delicate, fine lace-like leaf. Have you have ever seen tatting? It was used by our ancestors and today’s patient hobbyists, to create lace doilies and dress collars by making intricate patterns of knots and loops with fine thread. With that picture in mind, you get a feel for this leaf. This one needs to be in a container or close to a seating area to get full appreciation for its beauty. A note of personal experience is that if you give this one as a gift, be sure the recipients are plant-people. To return to see your greatest treasured gift shriveled up, still in the pot can make you question the hearts and minds of your friends. A pre-screening interview may be necessary.


This Hort Shorts becomes a little long but to squeeze the selection of this diverse group of plants into a top five or ten is not possible and a disservice to the avid gardener. If there was a common term beyond baker’s dozen, like cobbler’s 15 or plumber’s 20, I would have gone for it. Aside from the new growth of these plants unfurling now, the timeliness of the note is because we have at least two grower/retailers who carry these plants in Alabama. It is frustrating to talk about plants with no source other than the internet to find the rare cultivars. The two include:

Paul and Glenda Lowe
Millstone Nurseries
3350 Edgewood Road
Millbrook, AL 36054

Pat Dye and Casey Teel
Quail Hollow Gardens
Auburn, AL
Call for visit. Exit Wire Rd. from I-85

Begin saving for your collection now. A slang term often used in connection with Acer palmatum cvs. is “Pricey”. The price does make you cringe at about $100 for what seems like a small plant. However, one quickly forgotten family meal at a less than fancy restaurant will fall far short of the lifetime of pleasure you get from these plants. Tell the kids, you are skipping BoBo’s slippery chicken and biscuits tonight and you are all going out for Beni kumo no su! There will be some grumbling but the educational experience will be well worth the seemingly short-term sacrifice.

Bon Appetit!
Ken Tilt

Please come back often and enjoy HortShorts as much as I enjoy posting them for you. Your enthusiastic plant response is always encouraged and welcome.