Autumn isn’t their only season to shine.
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Purple Ghost Maple
Credit: Steve Bender

I suppose it's only natural to extol Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) for their incandescent fall foliage. No other group of trees comes close to matching their scarlet, orange, crimson, golden, and burgundy autumn leaves. However, one aspect of that foliage often overlooked is the glorious display when they first emerge in spring. For some Japanese maples, the spring show outshines the fall's.

'Purple Ghost'

Such is the case with the maple shown up top called 'Purple Ghost.' Wow, look at those ketchup-red leaves! My tree is little more than knee-high, but it's the first plant that grabs my eye when I step into my woodland garden. (I have a half-dozen Japanese maples there. In USDA Zones 8A, they appreciate dappled afternoon shade.) The leaves turn green in summer and then change to garnet-red with prominent, dark purple veins in fall. 'Purple Ghost' grows slowly to about 15 feet tall and 8 feet wide and would do well in a container.

'Summer Gold'

Summer Gold Maple
Credit: Steve Bender

Greens dominate a woodland garden, so why not pop a little sunshine in there? That was my thinking when I added 'Summer Gold' Japanese maple (above). In spring its leaves emerge bright-yellow edged in red. In summer, they age to chartreuse-yellow and don't fade or burn from the heat. Autumn finds them bright orange and red. 'Summer Gold' is an upright grower and reaches around 12 feet tall and 8 feet wide.

'Osakazuki'

Osakazuki Maple
Credit: Steve Bender

Anyone here ever plant a Japanese maple for the flowers? Probably not, but you might want to make an exception for 'Osakazuki.' One of the oldest named Japanese maples, it welcomes the spring with pendant clusters of small scarlet blooms backed by lemony-green leaves. The foliage turns medium-green in summer before finishing crimson-maroon in late fall, often after Thanksgiving at my house. 'Osakazuki' is particularly heat-tolerant and takes full sun without burning. Some say it grows 20 feet tall and wide, but mine isn't half that after 25 years. Maybe I planted it atop a fossilized Triceratops. Hey, it's possible.

'Emperor 1'

Emperor 1 Maple
Credit: Steve Bender

Whenever a reader asks me which Japanese maple to start with, I always point to 'Emperor 1.' It leafs out a week or so later than other kinds and thus avoids damage from late freezes. Bright red foliage keeps its color from spring until fall, even in shade, and they don't fade in the summer heat. This vigorous grower reaches around 15 feet tall and wide. Many consider it an improvement over the very popular 'Bloodgood.'

'Hubb's Red Willow'

Hubb's Red Willow Maple
Credit: Steve Bender

I'll finish this enlightening discussion with a Japanese maple that's really cool – 'Hubb's Red Willow.' It features exceptionally long, narrow, stringlike leaflets reminiscent of bamboo. The leaves unfurl bright-red in spring, deepen to burgundy in summer, and bid a scarlet farewell in fall. Bushy and nearly columnar, this quick grower matures at 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Plant one today!

Where to buy: 'Emperor 1' is widely available at garden and home centers. The others are harder to find. Good mail-order sources include Mr. Maple and Maple Ridge Nursery