What people are typically looking for when they ask for a ‘red maple’ is one of the red-leaved Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) cultivars. These trees retain a deep maroon leaf throughout the year at the expense of no fall color. Crimson King and Royal Red are two cultivars commonly used in our region. The allure of the Crimson King and its ilk are the contrasting colors they provide in the landscape- while most other plants are green, the Crimson King or Royal Red provide a bold statement in the landscape with their heavy, deeply colored foliage. However, I believe this aesthetic interest is easily overshadowed by the many issues common in the species. For one, Norway Maples and their cultivars are prone to girdling roots that wrap around the trunk. As the trunk and roots grow larger, they choke each other and cause significant portions of dieback in the tree. The trees are also susceptible to frost cracking on the trunks, especially when planted on a southern exposure. Their wood is deceptively weak- I’ve had more than a few seemingly healthy branches snap under me while tree climbing. Let’s also not forget the profuse seed production which will readily colonize an empty bed near the tree. Possibly my largest complaint with them is that their leaves can be scorched in the hotter months, rendering their color a dull brown rather than the desired maroon-red.
If you truly desire a red-leaved maple, there is an alternative in the Crimson Sunset Maple (Acer truncatum x platanoides ‘JFS-KW202’). This cultivar is a hybrid of the Norway Maple and Shantung Maple, a Chinese species. The A. truncatum parentage gives the tree a glossy leaf and superior heat resistance, making it a suitable replacement for a crimson-leaved maple. It also has a smaller mature size (35’ tall by 25’ wide) making it ideal for tight spaces where the full-sized Crimson King (50’ x 50’) would be too large. If you only want color during the growing season, you may consider one of the European Beech with purple leaves, such as the Tricolor Beech or the Rivers Beech. Another option that makes for a spectacular spring show is the Royal Raindrops® Crabapple, which displays an abundance of hot pink flowers in spring followed by a deep purple leaf during the rest of the growing season.
As you can see, there’s more than just aesthetics that go into the process of choosing a specimen tree for your home or business. Not every tree works in every space, and that’s why our staff is here to guide your selection with advice on mature sizes, colors, growth habits, and more. Here at Johnson’s Nursery, we pride ourselves on growing quality hardy trees and plants for Wisconsin landscapes, and our staff is on hand to make sure your tree makes a statement in your landscape for a lifetime.