Around the Island

Tree of the month: Japanese maple

Take a look from under a Japanese maple towards the sun to see an array of vibrant fall colors.

Japanese maple

Latin Name: Acer palmatum

Locations: Japanese maples are ubiquitous on Shelter Island. A stately tree, on a property at the corner of North Midway and Bateman, stood out last week in maroon perfection. (Alas, when I returned to take a photo, half the leaves had fallen.)

“Wow!” color: While most of our deciduous trees have peaked or lost their leaves, the Japanese maples persist with vibrant shades of orange, yellow, green, brown and purple, sometimes all on the same tree. I recommend walking under one on a sunny day and gazing up at the backlit leaves. It’s a visual treat.

The source of that color: When temperatures drop and the days get shorter, trees stop manufacturing chlorophyll, the green pigment in leaves that converts sunlight into food. As the chlorophyll retreats, it’s replaced by yellow and orange pigments that were there all along. Anthocyanins, which are produced in the fall, add the reds and purples. The variation in color from year to year depends upon soil moisture, autumn temperatures and rainfall.

A Japanese maple stands on a property on the corner of North Midway and Bateman.

A revered tree: For centuries the Japanese maple has been integral to the country’s culture. The tree or its leaves are depicted often in woodblock prints, most notably in Hiroshige’s “Maple Trees at Mama” from his series “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.” And while we enjoy fall foliage outings for pleasure and candied apples, the Japanese can regard the annual viewing, which they call “maple tree hunting,” as a time-honored spiritual experience.

A perfect tree: By the 19th century there were numerous named maple cultivars in Japan that were planted in cities, temples and gardens. They were also grown as bonsai plants. Though many of these specimens were lost during WWII, interest in the species continued and now there are hundreds of varieties available to fit all types of gardens and landscapes. It’s possible to create a maple grove combining trees of different sizes, textures and leaf color. Or try mixing them with perennials and compatible shrubs and trees. Be sure to determine their ultimate growth so they don’t get hedged in by surrounding vegetation. The choices are dizzying but, unlike most dilemmas in life, this is a fun one to have.


President, Shelter Island Friends of Trees

[email protected]