Tree Talk: Streaks of sunshine for the winter garden

Yellow: Considered the most beautiful and prestigious color in Imperial China, yellow was the Emperor’s color. It was to royalty what purple represents in Western culture. The Chinese aphorism that “Yellow generates Yin and Yang” implies that it is central to all things. Indeed, it is the color of the sun. Little wonder that this color is so present in the interiors of Scandinavian homes, where dark season light is in short supply.

Long ago I was looking for something to bring light and color to a corner of my winter garden. I’d settled on a large pot of variegated needlepoint ivy— masses of small leaves, predominately white with celadon edges extending in every direction with long, leafy  tendrils. Knowing my goal, a very wise nurseryman led me to a similar ivy that was rich yellow edged in green. “This will work better,” he told me. “White is cold. Yellow is much better at warming up and lighting up the garden.”  Right he was, but finding yellow to enliven the winter garden isn’t easy.

Then, three years ago, Rolland Hebert, at City People’s Garden Store, steered me to an Acer palmatum ‘Bihou.’

“You need this for your Winter garden. It’s a beautiful tree but out of leaf, it will be like streaks of sunshine against the dark skies.”

So I bought one and planted it. Right again, Rolland.

The tree was a bit of a sensation in horticultural circles. It was billed as “an exciting new introduction.” A small, upright tree, it promised tiny pink-flushed yellow-green leaves in spring, turning green in summer, then bright yellow tinged with red in fall. All that came to pass. But it is the defoliated winter form and bark color that has me totally besotted —  yellow at the bottom, stretching up to young branchlets which are orange to apricot-yellow. This time of year, I walk out my garden gate and my eyes are immediately caught by this delicate and colorful sculpture. I feel the promise of warmer days to come and celebrate the stark beauty of the season at hand. I feel like an emperor. My Yin and Yang are propelled into Kung Fu force as I cope with the gloom. OK… that may be over the top, but the tree does cheer me up.

Like all Japanese maples, give Acer palmaturm ‘Bihou’ a spot in full Sun or part shade. It will thrive in our rich acid soil. Plant it where you’ll not disturb the root zone once it is in the ground. I put several evergreen ferns to grow up around the base of mine. In ten years expect this plant to be 7 feet tall, about 3 feet wide. Light pruning, to edit out crossing branches and overly ambitious shoots, will be all that is required. Water it well through the dry season, but be certain to locate the tree in an area that has good drainage.

Japanese maples are long-lived. So with proper care, you can expect to have these streaks of sunshine through the rest of your winters.