This spring, I chanced upon some dwarf Japanese maples, and Acer palmatum ‘Beni-hime’ found its way into my nursery cart. ‘Beni-hime’ grows painstakingly slow, no more than two inches (5 cm) a year, eventually forming a dense, spreading mound about 40 x 40 inches (1 x 1 m) in size. However, when planted in a container, it doesn’t reach its potential size, and stays at 24 x 24 inches (60 x 60 m).
Its dwarf characteristics are immediately evident — the leaves are only one and a quarter inches (3 cm) wide, attached to short petioles extending from delicate twigs. The shrub’s compact, diminutive stature makes it useful for providing detail in small spaces, and it displays various red tones all season. The spring foliage emerges bright pinkish red, then fades to green in summer, with the exception of prominent clusters of red leaves at each branch tip. The red tips remain all summer, until the fall when the entire plant turns raspberry and purple. There’s always something colourful going on with ‘Beni-hime’, and it shows its best colour when given half a day of direct sun.
I’m famous for selecting plants that are borderline hardy in my garden, and this intriguing Japanese maple is no exception. ‘Beni-hime’ is hardy to Zone 6b, and my garden is in Zone 6a. That might seem like a small difference, but it could be fatal in a severe winter. I don’t want to protect it with excessive layers of leaves, boxes or burlap wraps, and I also don’t want a plant that carries winter damage each year and doesn’t thrive. So ‘Beni-hime’ is in a nice clay pot (lined with plastic with a drainage hole cut in the bottom), and will join the carousel of plants that winter in the garage, emerging in spring for placement where I can enjoy them constantly.
I frequently mention this tribe of moveable plants that winter in the garage, and hasten to say they don‘t require any extra attention or consideration. The only difficulty is that the car is being squeezed out, but purchasing increasingly smaller vehicles solves the problem! I like having interesting, special plants in containers that I can place where I sit outdoors, and can be moved to sun or shade as the weather and their requirements change. In late autumn, I line them up against the interior garage wall, and sometimes give them an open plastic bag to sit in to help preserve soil moisture. A last watering (and a mid-winter check to be sure none is too dry), and that’s all the care required until they come out again in spring. These special plants couldn’t live in my open garden, but they’re safe in the garage where temperature never dips below -2°C.
Dwarf Acer palmatum cultivars aren’t consistently available in most garden centres. My ‘Beni-hime’ was part of a small number brought in just for quick spring sale (purchased at Mori Gardens in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.). But specialist nurseries (such as vinelandnurseries.com) often have them in stock year round, and these are well worth looking for. Other slow-growing, dwarf cultivars suitable for permanent container culture include ‘Akita Yatsubusa’ (narrow-lobed, pink-yellow-red leaves), ‘Beni-komachi’ (greenish-red twiggy shrub), ‘Cynthia’s Crown Jewel’ (yellow-pink new leaves turn green), ‘Murasaki-kiyohime’ (upright, green leaves with purple edges) and A. p. dissectum ‘Midori-no-teiboku’ (cutleaf green leaves with flecks of pink-red). A small collection of these versatile Japanese maples could grow into a moving forest for your garden!