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 »