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Tree 47: Japanese Maple

Latin name: Acer palmatum
Family: Aceraceae
Origin: China, Japan, Korea
Height: very varied but up to 10 metres
Lifespan: oldest recorded specimen over 600 years
Autumn leaf loss: Deciduous
Gender Type: Monoecious (Male and female flowers on same tree)

The oldest known fossils of Acer (maple) are from the late Paleocene era, around 60 million years ago. There are up to 150 species of Acer mostly native to Asia, with some in Europe, northern Africa, and North America including Acer palmatum of which there are over 250 cultivars. They mostly appear as shrubs and small trees and their form can be dwarf, shrub, ground cover, vase, weeping, cascading, umbrella, single stemmed or multiple trunks close to the ground. Similarly, different cultivars often have different characteristics that come into prominence during different seasons. These may relate to the colour of their new or mature leaves (particularly their extraordinary autumn colours), their bark or the intricacies of their leaf design. The leaves themselves are star shaped or nearly round; some are deeply dissected and lacy. They spread symmetrically from a central point like fingers from the palm of a hand. Larger species can grow to 6-10 metres high . They are slow-growing, long-lived and tolerant of urban pollution, shade and frost. They have compact noninvasive root systems, suitable for small gardens and containers. The small, green flowers in spring are attractive close up and later a flattened wing of papery tissue (samara) develops
around a nutlet/seed. As they fall they spin, spreading the seed far away from the parent plant.

Acer palmatum forms have been a part of Japanese history for centuries. The first recorded plant dates to the 7th century. Centuries of fascination with refining different cultivars have resulted in a staggering diversity. When travelling in Japan in 1776, Carl Thunberg, Swedish naturalist observed and named them ‘Acer palmatum’, perhaps aware that they are called kaede or “frog’s hands” in Japanese. Acer comes from the Latin acro meaning sharp or pointed, and palmatum means shaped like a hand. Japanese Maples were first introduced in England in 1820, since when they have become very popular ornamental trees. They provide cover and nesting opportunities for wildlife.

The autumn turning of colours on the trees is a highly-anticipated yearly event in Japan. For most Japanese, going to view the maple trees is a form of communion with Nature. Maple trees have been an important traditional subject of Japanese art, poetry and literature, viewed as a symbol of elegance, beauty and grace.

More information on the Japanese Maple, including things to do, is available here.