Here’s today’s garden riddle: When is a maple not really a maple? When it’s a flowering maple, an Abutilon, that’s when. Lord only knows how a flowering maple got its name because Abutilon would never be confused with a maple tree. Okay, okay, some folks think the leaves of a flowering maple look like a Japanese maple leaf but perhaps those are the same people who can read tea leaves, because I can’t see it. For me, the name of this plant is one of those inexplicable oddities of the gardening world, of which there are many.
So other than it’s common name, this is one uncommon plant. Cistus Design Nursery offers about 75 different varieties of flowering maples but many other nurseries carry them too. The flowers on these maples resemble a hibiscus or hollyhock and you’d swear somebody made them out of crepe paper and pinned them all over the plant. Very cool looking. Cistus co-owner Parker Sanderson says flat out “They bloom forever.” In mild winters (the last five) the flowering maples bloom all year. Even so, to prepare for the “big one” Sanderson takes out a little insurance policy on his favorites, which we’ll talk about a little later. Sanderson and his partner Sean Hogan grow varieties that (most of) our winters won’t kill. Sanderson says even in a colder year “…they’ll flower (albeit more slowly) through Thanksgiving, then start again around Valentines Day.” Let me say here and now; I like that.
The flowers come in white, yellow, orange, pink, red, burgundy and a variety named “China Bells” has a bright yellow petticoat that dangles under a tiny red hoopskirt of a flower. My favorite.
Given all of these worthy attributes, fall is a wonderful to time to plant one or two. Dwarf varieties won’t even grow knee high, but pump out more flowers than leaves given a little fertilizer. Flowering maples can also grow kinda tall and gangly. Sanderson stuns visitors with the flowering maple called “Red Veined Orange” (don’t you love that name?) growing 25 feet up his prune tree in Northeast Portland “People actually ask us if we decorated our tree with little Chinese lanterns. Sorry, we’re just not that detail oriented.”
“Gardeners are always stunned at how successful they are with flowering maples” says Sanderson. I can attest to that. They are one easy, easy plant. Just give them normal (compost rich) soil and regular water, sprinkle on some fertilizer and you’re good to go They are best planted out of the wind as much as possible, in a protected spot. My friends at Lonesomeville Garden in Southeast Portland have a couple of spectacular flowering maples which they either bring inside the house or put in a cold frame for the winter. Sanderson reports that he too “takes an insurance sample.” This involves snipping off the top four or five inches of the plant and sticking the sticks in some potting soil near a window and watering them once in awhile, just incase the “big one comes.”
Flowering maple is one plant that can win friends and influence people, alright. And whether its common name fits doesn’t matter to me, as long as one or two fit nicely into my garden.