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March Maple Madness

Sugars are sweet, but the ones I’m really crazy about are Japanese


Our house in New York’s Hudson River Valley was once called the Maples, in honor of the majestic sugar maples that surrounded it when it was new in the 1870s. Only two of these classic shade trees remain (60 and 75 feet tall), which is fine with me. When your whole lot is only an acre, “majestic” is just a euphemism for “eats the yard and there’s no room for anything else.”

But here we are in syrup season, when you can’t open a paper or magazine without seeing the word “MAPLE” staring sweetly back at you, and this year I am craving a new maple tree — a  Japanese maple, to be precise. Unlike their park-size cousins, Japanese maples are ideal for small yards. Some dwarf forms are as short as 4 feet, and even the largest varieties rarely exceed 20 feet tall.

This big-tree-in-small-package aspect is what led me to fall in love with my first one, back in 2007. The maple was only 3 feet tall but had a branch structure that reminded me of Japanese prints. I planted it where it was visible from the kitchen window and regardless of season, I never grew tired of looking at it: tender pink in spring, grass green in summer, aflame with autumn red and orange, then winter-naked: first in a pool of fallen fire, then over a skirt of snow. 

This cycle went on for a few years. The tree grew — slowly — then I killed it. Or rather, I put it out of its misery after consecutive spring frosts had destroyed so much young growth it was seriously deformed. My fault the first time: I didn’t cover it when frost threatened. Not my fault the second: It was covered, but temperatures dropped so low nothing could have protected it.

I’d also planted it in the wrong place (facing south, partly sheltered by the house). Japanese maples aren’t entirely hardy here in zone 5b, and I was trying to give it the coziest possible microclimate. Bad idea: turns out winter cold is less a threat than warmth in early spring. Because these trees leaf out early, an unusually warm April can trick them into producing a full canopy of tender foliage. Then, if the usual frost comes in early May, wham!

Even where they’re in no danger from late frosts, Japanese maples need shade in the afternoon and protection from wind. Fortunately, I have a nice, northeast-facing spot for what I’m hoping will be a Waterfall, a dwarf variety with wide, drooping branches and lacy green leaves that turn shining gold in fall.

But that hope is based entirely on window-shopping in specialty catalogs that offer unusually large assortments. I might well wind up with something else, because I’m determined to buy locally. Three reasons: 1) I want to fall in love again with a specific tree, a ready-made living sculpture that I need to see in person. (No Internet dating for me!). 2) I want my beloved to be proved hardy by having spent at least one winter in this zone. 3) Instant gratification. Most mail-order Japanese maples are small — years away from having much of a presence in the garden.

If you’re thinking you might like a Japanese maple of your own — and I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t — I recommend you start your window-shopping at the websites of these established sources: Mendocino Maples, Sooner Plant Farm and Forestfarm.

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