April 1, 2007
I wonder if you have the same fetish as I do about Japanese maples. Towards the end of winter I find myself drawn into their twiggy interiors to rid them of the wood they seem anxious to shed. As many as a quarter of their slender fishbone twiglets have died, and by March stand out white among the darker living ones. You onlyhave to press them to hear a little snap. Best to gather them up and burn them, because dead maple wood attracts one of the more sinister fungi: coral spot. Once its tiny pink pustules appear, usually on the snag of a torn or broken branch, there is not very much you can do to save the branch, or even the tree.
This habit of shading out their own older shoots is what gives mature maples their graceful floating look. As their branches extend all their fresh growth and all their leaves are bunched near the tips. A Japanese gardener prunes to exaggerate this effect, taking out the weaker branches until only four or five remain, to pose like outspread wings in a tableau. He does the same with pines, to imitate the effects of age and exposure on a rocky shore. It is one thing, though, to take a hint from a maple and another to impose on a pine. I can’t see this particular form of topiary, seductive as it is in Japan, ever sweeping the home counties.