By Paul James
Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’, better known as the coral bark maple, has been growing in popularity in recent years, and with good reason: It’s beautiful all year long, even in the dead of winter – as in right now -- when its show-stopping, coral-colored trunk and twigs are at their peak.
But the coral bark maple has plenty of other attributes. It stays relatively small, growing to about 12’ in ten years (maybe 25’ at maturity), which makes it ideal for small properties or as a specimen close to the house. And it typically maintains an upright, vase-shape. Its deeply lobed, almost fernlike leaves start out light green in spring, and in fall turn spectacular shades of yellow, reddish-purple, and bronze. Its reddish-purple flowers, though inconspicuous from afar, are beautiful when seen up close. And it does great in containers, where it rarely grows taller than eight feet or so.
Like other Japanese maples, the coral bark grows best in organically rich, slightly acidic, well-drained soils where it receives a few hours of morning light followed by afternoon shade, or dappled light throughout the day. Even in the best of locations, leaves may get scorched in the middle of a hot summer, but consistent moisture and a thick layer of mulch will keep that to a minimum. Pruning isn’t often necessary, but if needed it should be done during the dormant season. Spring or summer pruning will likely cause significant bleeding.
It’s hard to say which Japanese maple is my favorite, but the coral bark is definitely on the short list. Plant one, and I think you’ll agree it’s a tree worth having.