My favourite tree in the entire world was a maple growing in a garden on the road to Preston. The trunk had a diameter of some 10 feet (3 metres), squished up against a tiny cottage cum gatehouse which it was pushing inexorably off its foundations. The crown of foliage was so huge that all light was excluded beneath and with the rustling of millions of leaves, the residents of the building must have felt as if they were living in a black bin bag. This summer they cut it down; they have gained a garden but I’ve lost a dear friend. Local streets have been planted injudiciously with bog standard Acer pseudoplatanus, which are forest trees. Eventually the Council will intervene to save the drains, pavements and pedestrians but until they stir their stumps, the autumn avenues are bedecked with golden glory. This is the time for sycamores to come into their kingdom.
Acer palmatum (Amoenum Group) ‘Bloodgood’
The common sycamores are promiscuous sluts. Even when chopped down, the roots will resprout unless hideous toxic chemicals are injected into the remains. The winged seeds will germinate with little provocation and the tiny seedlings turn into strapping specimens in moments. A log burning stove and chainsaw gardening may well be the only option.
Better mannered examples abound, with no plan for world domination, a nifty line in prettily shaped wind gossiping leaves and ruby heart break seasonal colour.
Acer palmatum (Amoenum Group) ‘Osakazuki’
Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) is most popular and widely available. As you would expect with prima donnas, they are picky about their treatment, preferring slightly acidic soil. The worst trouble is caused by wind damage, followed by sun scorch, or over watering. I grow my specimens in pots, surrounded by walls in an east facing courtyard, protected from the prevailing wind. For many years they have thrived in purchased compost mixed with pea gravel and bone meal. Most are much too big for re-potting so I top dress every few years with homemade compost and well rotted horse manure. I keep pruning to an absolute minimum, since the plants seem to know what they are doing. Stick to removing dead twigs and crossing branches at an early stage. Any cutting should be done when they are dormant from November to April and you should not slice into old wood.
Acer palmatum dissectum atropurpureum (purple cut-leaved Japanese maple)
Despite the words of caution, I have found my mini jungle denizens to be remarkably forgiving of terrible indignities foisted upon them. I made a pity purchase of an Acer aconitifolium with a broken leader. I pulled a side shoot to a vertical position and strapped it upright against a bamboo cane with bonsai wire, leaving it corseted in place for twelve months. The tree is now as tall and straight as my husband but unlike him, delicate. An older treasure, A. osakazuki had stuffed its taproot out of the drainage hole and was swimming with water. In passing, I mentioned the matter to Attila the Gardener and went to make tea to cogitate at leisure. Upon returning to the garden fifteen minutes later, I found that he had taken his trusty Black and Decker and drilled out the obstruction with extreme prejudice. The plant has taken several years to recover from such tough love and I feel a great deal of sisterly sympathy for the victim of a man on a mission, wishing to be helpful. He’s offered to fix a few of my personal problems with power tools up to and including dentistry and I have always declined. I wonder why.