Selecting smaller maple for shade garden

nw_gardener(8 (WA/Kirkland))November 29, 2009


I am Zone 8 near Seattle. I have a shady area beside my house that I was trying to establish as a native/small tree shade garden; this is a patch of land about 20 feet long by 10 feet wide or so with southern exposure. The plot is shaded by houses on both the long sides, open to the south - it gets direct sun for about 3-4 hours or so during the summer and is in generally in bright shade for the rest of the time - lots of protection from the wind. My climate is the typical Northwest pattern of dry summers/wet winters.

I am trying to pick a maple tree to complete the collection in this area. I was looking (or hoping) for these characteristics:

1. Interesting bark for winter interest

2. Not too large (less than 12 feet or so in 10 years)

3. Not too wide (less than 6-7 feet in spread). I did not want the tree dominating the patch

4. Does well in shade of the type mentioned (I suppose the type of shade I describe would be rated part shade?)

5. Good fall color

I was looking at:

1. Coral bark japanese maple (Acer Palmatum Sango-Kaku)

2. Pacific Fire vine maple (Acer Circinatum)

3. Aoyagi japanese maple (Acer Palmatum)

I really like the look of the Aoyagi with the pea green bark. The Pacific Fire looks very striking when beside the Aoyagi and I was going to try to pair them. A few questions:

1. Does the Pacific Fire make a good combination with the Aoyagi with time - are the plants of similar size?

2. Does the coral bark tend to be redder than the pacific fire? Most reviews I read about the Pacific Fire have it being redder than the coral bark, but when I saw the plants in person at the nursery, the Pacific Fire seemed to have a more muted red coloration than the coral bark (the Kaku looked like it was positively glowing red)

3. Would the coral bark and the aoyagi get too large for this patch (I define too large as anything greater than 14 feet or so)?

4. How is the fall color interest on these varieties and do they need more light than I have to bring out their color?

5. I like the fact that the vine maple is a hybrid of the native variety and should therefore be more adapted than the Japanese maples to the NW climate of dry summers and be able to tolerate the wet winters. Is this true - I see Japanese Maples all over the place in this area so obviously they do well here but I am looking for the proverbial low maintenance plant :)

6. Any other suggestions for plants I should be looking at?

Thanks for reading and my apologies for the extended message

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To answer your questions:

1) 'Aoyagi' would make a better companion to 'Sango Kaku' - they are of similar mature sizes and growth rates. Both will eventually get much larger than your specs and will dwarf the vine maple, which is really quite a petite tree.

2) To my eye, the bark colors are quite different - SK is scarlet red (and on my own tree, quite an intense scarlet. in winter). PF is much more of an orange-red. Both have their appeal, but I'm not sure I'd try to compare them.

3) Yes, as indicated above. A mature size on both is going to be in the 18-25' range with an equal canopy spread. (SK grows faster than you might imagine, as well).

4) Of the 3, 'Aoyagi' will have the least fall interest. Fall coloring on SK and PF can be quite magnificent, depending on growing conditions, weather and sunlight. In full sun, SK turns shades of peach and apricot with red highlights; PF is similar but not quite as intense. Aoyagi is yellow-gold.

5) Japanese maples are as suited to this area and climate as the vine maples, even tho not native - there's some very close genetic ties. I'd consider both to be very low on the maintenance side of the issue.

6) Most of the other Asian maples that offer great bark interest - snakebark, A.p. 'Nishiki gawa' (pine bark maple), A. rufinerve or davdii, A. griseum - will get too large for your 25' or more. There are other "coral bark" J. maples that will remain smaller: 'Winter Flame', 'Japanese Sunrise', Fjellheim'. You also might want to consider a lion's head maple, A.p. 'Shishigashira' - that has a smallish stature, interesting branch and bark structure and is an unusual, distinctive tree in the landscape.

'Personally, I think the vine maple is an excellent choice and if you want a different colored bark to combine with it, look for A.p. 'Aocha Nishiki' (syn. 'Siecha' or 'Siecha Nishiki') - lime green stems and subtle variegation.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2009 at 10:47AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Here in its native region shaded specimens of typical wild type vine maples often grow well beyond shrub size, with broad crowns. The tallest of these are over 60' high. However, there are smaller-growing cultivars in garden centers here, including recently introduced ones with colored leaves and coral stems. Otherwise, there are hundreds of kinds of Japanese maples to choose from - these have become a big item, with some retail outlets featuring quite a large selection. As with other kinds of trees and shrubs, the best pickings are liable to be had in spring.

    Bookmark   November 30, 2009 at 11:39AM
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nw_gardener(8 (WA/Kirkland))

Thank you, that was amazing. I checked out all the other options you indicated (great pointers!) and I think I will go with a one Pacific Fire; it looks like it will be perfect for me.

One followup question - how fast does it grow? I was thinking of buying a 5' tree or so. How much growth should I expect from it, and does it respond to pruning well? I was hoping to maintain it at a height of around 10 feet or so if amenable to pruning.

I was also wondering if this cultivar was going to be true to seed if wanted to try propagating it - are the seeds viable?

    Bookmark   November 30, 2009 at 7:05PM
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Vine maples don't grow all that fast......more or less comparable to Japanese maples. And PF is not ever going to get to be a "big" tree anyway - it will stay well within your height limitations. It will need some time to settle in and establish before it puts out significant growth, so don't look for much the first season or two. I'd recommend approaching pruning the same as one would do with a JM -- as little as necessary to maintain the tree properly. Generally, just a little removal of any dead wood or conflicting branches and that's about it. Canopies of vine maples seldom require much in the way of thining.

Seeding on vine maples is sporadic - some seed freely; others seem reluctant. The seeds, if any, should be viable but with no guarantee that they will be true to form. You'll just as likely get the straight species as easily as you would one with colored bark.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2009 at 11:06AM
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Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

I've seen some red-twigged vine maples at outlets etc. here that were blazingly red. And well-above-the-head specimens are already being displayed, I wouldn't count on dwarfness from such vigorous plants. Multiple cultivars have come on the general market in recent years, including even two supposedly different ones with purplish leaves - you should now be able to get a vine maple for a number of different effects besides native and naturalistic planting.

    Bookmark   December 1, 2009 at 3:51PM
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bboy, do the Pacific Fire maples become bushy in full sun?

    Bookmark   March 25, 2013 at 11:26PM
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This thread is almost 4 years old....getting a very specific response to an add-on question is a bit hit or miss at this stage of the game :-)

Full sun has really no bearing on how bushy or not this tree will be. It is more on the form the tree takes naturally. Young trees that begin branching low to the ground will be bushy in habit -- a taller trunk before branching will produce a more tree-like form.

Vine maples, like 'Pacific Fire', are trees, typically reaching anywhere from 10-12' to as much as 20' or more. While they may have a rather variable growth habit in the wild, most cultivated forms will be quite full. The 'bushiness' develops with respect to the height of the initial branching - lower branching will offer a much more shrub-like appearance.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2013 at 3:10PM
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nw_gardener(8 (WA/Kirkland))

I am the OP - I went with a Pacific Fire in late 2009 and it has been a slow grower; the tree has been rather reluctant to branch out. I have it growing in part sun conditions.

I don't know if it gets bushier with more sun, but it does seem like it takes a while to do it.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2013 at 8:17PM
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I'm newer to Japanese Maples. But I just wanted to add that I was really impressed with the winter showing of my Red Dragon. The branches were a plum color and had interesting curves to them. I know this thread is old, but something for people to consider who might stumble on this thread.

    Bookmark   April 27, 2013 at 1:16AM
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