Casual Gardener: All the acers

The Japanese maple represents peace and calmness

The acer's autumn colour will calm even the most restless soul...

ON the other side of the world, the annual pastime of 'momiki-gari' is getting underway. The phrase roughly translates from Japanese as 'maple viewing' or 'maple hunting', an autumnal ritual whereby the acers with the most stunning colour are sought out in the wild woodlands and forests of the Far East. It is regarded as a deeply spiritual experience, one that pays homage to a tree that represents peace and calmness.

When contemplating the acer – or Japanese maple – it exudes a restful ambience. It is a tree of contradictions – both simple and complex; plain yet vibrant; understated much of the time yet classy on other occasions. There are many varieties, with a diverse range of textured barks and eye-catching foliage. The common thread through them all is beauty, which tends to be in its prime either side of summer. The leaves when they are emerge in spring, a little earlier than most trees, are bright and deceptively delicate-looking. But it is in the autumn as the chlorophyll drains from the leaves that the acer truly comes into its own, its crisp foliage glowing in the low sun in shades of dazzling gold, warm yellows, burnt oranges and fiery reds.

Part of the same tree family that gives us the sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) and maple syrup, it's a genus that is particularly common in the temperate zones of Europe and Asia. The field maple (Acer campestre) is the only acer native to these islands, and while it is quite common in southern England, it is rarely found growing in Ireland in the wild.

The Japanese acer's origins mean it looks most at home in an idealised oriental garden alongside boulders, mosses, ferns and water – this image alone should be enough to drain the stress from your body. But the acer isn't prescriptive – this is a small to medium tree (which is actually classified as a shrub) that can easily adapt to all sorts of spaces, whether formal or more natural, big or small. The one thing it asks is a bit of space to grow. Acer's aren't thuggish trees so tend not to thrive where there's nearby canopy competition. Plant them singularly, as a specimen, and at the very least one metre away from another tree, shrub, fence or wall, giving them plenty of room to stretch, whereby you'll get the best from their leaves.

They are hardy and therefore more than happy with Ireland's temperate climate regardless of the soil pH, though some varieties are more partial to acid-neutral or alkaline soil. When planting, give your tree as much shelter as possible, because if located in an exposed, windy spot, they will at the very least fail to fulfil their potential. It's hard to hold on to your ornamental foliage when you're being blasted by a cold north wind. It's also best to avoid a position where frost lingers as this too will damage those precious leaves.

In terms of recommended varieties, the name Acer palmatum 'Ozakazuki' crops up again and again, with its green leaves turning to a vivid scarlet in autumn. Also winning plaudits is Acer palmatum 'Garnet' (AGM), a tree with red to garnet foliage that's partial to boggy, acidic ground. 'Bloodgood' has purple-ish leaves that go red in autumn, while Acer griseum has attractive foliage with the bonus of peeling, papery chestnut-brown bark.

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