Garden Designers Roundtable: Flipping For Foliage

Foliage.  On the surface it seemed like a simple enough topic for my inaugural Garden Designers Roundtable post.  But, boy, was I wrong.  I toyed with the idea of discussing some of the usual foliage talking points – variegation, size, texture, color, use as an architectural accent and on and on.  Needless to say, I was floundering in a flood of foliage.  But then I remembered one of my favorite foliage plants and was suddenly rescued.  So join me on a photo tour spanning a year in the life of Coral Bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’).

Coral Bark maple with snow

Admit it, some of you are thinking coral bark maple – that’s a winter accent plant.  And you’re right, many gardeners plant Sango-kaku for its brilliant coral-red winter bark.  Here in my southwestern CT garden (zone 6), the bark begins to get noticeably red in late November and by February it’s on fire.  But if you’re planting coral bark maple just for its bark you’re missing the best part – the foliage.  Having one in your garden is like living near the beach…on the surface the view is pretty much the same but if you pay close enough attention, there’s always something new to appreciate. 

new leaves of SankekiHere we are in early April and spring has officially begun.  The new leaves of coral bark maple are quickly emerging.   As an added bonus, the bark is still bright red so the mix of colors is heady.  New leaves are bright green and have a clear red margin.  Both the margins and the center of the leaves will slowly change color over the next few months.

Coral bak maple leaves in JuneHere we are in June, two months since the leaves of Sango-kaku first emerged.  And during those two months, each day the tree has looked different.  Some days it appears more yellow, others more green and still others it looks like it’s covered in confetti.  And when the afternoon sun hits the tree, the leaves are almost translucent.  By early summer the leaves are almost fully green.  But the ones at the tips of the branches are varying shades of yellow–green and some still have a hint of their early spring margins.  Notice how the branches and stems are still red?  The overall effect of the multicolored leaves and the red bark is a continuing delight.

Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku' in summerNow it’s late July and the leaves are almost finished changing colors.  Some are a deeper green while others still have a hint of yellow.  And the stems are still red, adding to the overall burst of color you experience the closer and closer you get.  The leaves will continue to change until they are all a similiar shade of green.  This stage lasts for only a few weeks because by early September the leaves are multicolored again, but this time in preparation for the final show before winter approaches.

Coral bark maple in OctoberIt’s already October and Sango -kaku is cloaked in her autumn colors.  The leaves are a brilliant shade of yellow that glow in the late afternoon sun.  But if you look closely, see the leaves on the top of the tree, the ones that held their coral margins the longest in the spring, they have a definite hint of orange.   The two-toned effect is not quite as pronounced as it was during the spring but still coral bark maples can hold their own among some of the more traditional fall foliage stars.

Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku' in November

Now it’s November and my garden is slowly going to sleep.  Most of the leaves of Sango-kaku have fallen but a few are unwilling to let go.  The colder fall temperatures are beginning to intensify the red color of the bark.  It’s nowhere near as bright as it will eventually be, but still your eye is rewarded by even a quick glance.

Coral bark maple is easy to incorporate into a variety of garden settings.  With a mature size of approximately 20′ x 15′, it is a good choice for large and small gardens alike.  Sango-kaku can also be grown as a container tree.  It is hardy from zones 5 – 8 and tolerates full to partial sun.  Mine is planted in an area of my garden that is a bit colder and damper than many other spots but it does get the benefit of both morning and afternoon sun.

Sango-kaku prefers moist, well draining soil but will tolerate a range of soil conditions, including sand and clay.  It is considered drought tolerant once it is established.  Mine does not get any supplemental water other than what Mother Nature provides.

Because of its subtle, ever-changing appearance, Sango-kaku is best sited near an area where you can appreciate it up close – beside a patio, deck or balcony, or perhaps where it’s branches hang down in front of a window or a quiet spot that encourages reflection and contemplation.

It’s been an interesting and colorful year in the garden, thanks in part to the ever-changing leaves of Sango-kaku.   So while you’re taking the time to stop and smell the roses, don’t forget to open your eyes and feast on the nearby foliage too.

As you probably know, I am not the only ’roundtabler’  exploring the topic of foliage today. 

Here are links to all the other foliage blog posts written by my fellow roundtablers today.  Please follow them all to read a wide array of very unique takes on the topic of foliage:

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA »
Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA »
Ivette Soler : The Germinatrix : Los Angeles, CA »
Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO
Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX »
Rebecca Sweet : Gossip in the Garden : Los Altos, CA »
Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA »

32 thoughts on “Garden Designers Roundtable: Flipping For Foliage

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  4. Good heavens, that’s gorgeous! I have zone envy! Maples don’t generally thrive in my hot, dry climate, although a few Japanese maples do succeed here. I’ve never seen the coral bark maple in Austin.

    • Pam,

      It is a versatile little tree, isn’t it? Coral bark maples are really beginning to gain popularity here and with good reason. Even the big box stores are carrying them. Of course, they don’t have the same pleasing shape as many of the those available at the local nurseries.

  5. What an interesting road to take on this topic…I love your “Year of the Acer”! It really demonstrates how important foliage can be! I have one in my front garden, right outside of my main window, and enjoy it’s foliage so much…thanks for the beautiful photos, too!

  6. Oh, Debbie!
    LUST!
    I adore Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’! I had one long ago, but the desiccating Santa Ana winds make quick work of the delicate leaves of Japanese Maples. So living ‘A Year In The Life’ of this beautiful plant via you was a special treat!
    So beautiful – a treasure in a landscape!
    Thanks for this treat – what a great way to celebrate foliage!
    XOIvette

    • Ivette,

      What a sensual group of roundtablers we are turned out to be – lust here, hortgasms on your blog! It’s enough to make this catholic-school girl blush and turn almost as red as my Sango-kaku.

  7. I enjoyed the tour of the Japanese maple tree throughout the year. Your post made me appreciate the beauty of this tree for more reasons than one- mainly the red bark. There is so much to appreciate about this tree and you are right- it should be placed somewhere where it can be appreciated up close.
    So tempting to get one now.
    Shirley Bovshow
    Garden World Report.com

  8. Hey Debbie – This was a terrific idea! I mostly post profiles of specific plants on my blog, and I really enjoy the scope of an idea distilled into one plant.

    I planted Acer ‘Atropurpureum’ last year when I found one at a bargain basement price that needed “rescuing” from a big box store. You’re making me wish I’d held out for ‘Sango-kaku’! :-) Ah, well, what’s a garden without at least two Japanese maples, eh?

    • Andrew,

      It feels good to rescue a plant from the big box stores, doesn’t it. Even better to find the rare, hidden gem that no one else has discovered yet. Only room for two japanese maples in your garden? I am fortunate enough to have 6, I inherited three dwarf ones from my mother-in-laws garden last spring. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they’ll all make it through the winter.

    • Jocelyn,

      How right you are that the anticipation factor is central to truly enjoying a garden. We’re all so lucky that we know what’s to come from month to month and even week to week.

  9. Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’ is one of my favorite little maples! Absolutely stunning with accent underlighting. Thank you for sharing those beautiful photos too; now I’m really pining for spring!

  10. Debbie, I hope your clients appreciate your ability to look at the design elements you provide for them. A designer who appreciates and plans for the transformation of a garden through the seasons, and eventually the years is truly a talent. Sango-Kako is a wonderful tree, and taking us through the seasons was brilliant! I must start using Sango-Kaku in my work also. Thanks

    • Scott,

      Thanks for such kind words of encouragement. I think Sango-kaku should be hardy up in your neck of CT. Just in case, plant one in your own garden to enjoy for a few seasons first!

  11. Like others have said before me, you had a great take on this HUGE topic! Great job choosing to focus on one plant whose foliage has such a tremendous wealth of possibilities. It’s certainly a tree that we use here in my area a lot! Ironically I have to go and buy a couple for a client tomorrow.
    Way to go!

    • Thanks. I’m glad to hear coral bark is so popular in your area. I think it’s popularity will continue to grow here as more and more people begin to appreciate it’s year round beauty.

  12. Hi Debbie,
    I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed your article. Japanese Maples are one of my favorites, but I was unaware of this variety. You did such a great job taking us through the seasons and creating (for me, anyway) one of those “I want that plant” moments!

    Although I am not a lover of yellow foliage, this tree seems to not be overly yellow (is it?). I love the variation of foliage colors and personally I am always drawn to interesting bark.

    Looks like a winner to me and your post was definitely a great one.

    • Susan,

      I’m honored to know I introduced you to a new maple and of course that I created a ‘I want one’ moment for you. I felt that way the minute I saw one glowing in a garden a few winters ago.

      The leaves are definitely more green than yellow, at least here in my garden.

  13. Great post Debbie. We simply cannot keep Sango Kaku at the garden center where I work in the tree department. As soon as customers lay eyes on it they are instantly smitten and for good reasons as you so perfectly captured in your post.

    • I hope the garden centers in this area will follow in your footsteps and start stocking coral bark more often. They are still a rare treasure rather than an everyday staple.

  14. Hi Debbie, I just found your blog. I’m so happy that I did!

    Sango-kaku‘ is one of my favorite Japanese maples! I love how you taken it through the year – what a beautiful specimen you have too!

    • Aubree,

      I’m so glad you found my blog too. I never realized how large of a following Sango-kaku has out there until I wrote the post and starting hearing from fans like you. Let’s spread the word about Sango-kaku so others begin to use it in their gardens too.

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