Joyce Kilmer certainly had it right when he wrote, "I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree." This poem has endured almost 100 years because it recognizes the beauty and significance of something that surrounds us quietly every day.
Most trees blend into the landscape like quiet sentinels, anchoring beds and banks. But this is not true of my current favorite, Lion's Head Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira'). This one roars to be recognized. It must stand alone and have its own space to reign supreme. Just seeing this tree for the first time creates an immediate sensory effect. You know that you are experiencing perfection.
Japanese maples are a horticultural treasure. They are mostly small deciduous trees, beautifully branched with lacy leaves that produce wonderful fall color. Lion's Head is unique within the species. It, too, is small, but it makes a powerful statement. Unlike the delicate, feathery foliage of the others, its leaves are small, firm and crinkled, appearing almost like tight green fists growing in clusters along the twisted branches. Everything about this tree shouts of strength.
The coloration of the bark is unmatched. The trunk and branches are a soft green, broken by some areas of white that encircle the trunk. Combine the smooth green bark and the deep green, tightly wound leaves and you have one of nature's most incredible achievements.
Perhaps the most important element is the shape of this tree. Lion's Head is upright with branching that appears in a vase shape. There are several theories as to how the name of the tree originated. One notes that Shishigashira is also the name of the Lion's Head goldfish, whose head also expands outward. My own thought is that the shape of the tree resembles that of a lion's mane.
Because all Japanese maples come with a hefty price tag, now is the time to consider adding one to your landscape. Nurseries want to clear out their inventory, and the markdowns are now in process. How wonderful to be able to snare a Lion's Head at a discount!
Plant this tree where it will be protected from extreme weather but where it will be fully visible from within your home so that you can appreciate it daily. Give a first year planting the benefit of some mulch once the ground has frozen. Use hay, shredded leaves or pine boughs to insulate this treasure from the effects of the freeze-thaw cycles that cause the ground to heave. Wrap the trunk with tree wrap, which will protect it from deer who love to rub their itchy velvet-covered antlers on the young bark. Lion's Head will adapt well to full sun or partial shade, but it must have soil that is well-drained. Continue to water well until the ground is frozen.
One special quality of this cultivar is that it is one of the last to develop fall color. When the foliage show has come and gone, count on this for an encore. The leaves turn a deep orange and brilliant yellow often as late as November.
This lion roars in all seasons. If Mr. Kilmer had seen Lion's Head, I am certain he would have written a poem just for this sensational tree.
Plumline Nursery: www.plumlinenursery.com, 724-327-6775
Hess Landscape Nursery: www.hesslandscapenursery.com, 412-384-8002
LMS Greenhouse & Nursery: http://lmsgreenhouse.com, 412-767-7020
Susan Silverman, a master gardener from Murrysville, was a co-winner, large garden category, of the 2006 Great Gardens contest.