Gardeners' Talk: Autumn Colors and Japanese Maples


Momijigari (Maple Viewing) is a traditional pastime of visiting the areas where foliage have turned red. The word Momijigari comes from the two words, momiji meaning maple or red leaves and gari meaning hunting. The tradition is said to have started in the Heian period (794-1185). In Japan, Nikko and Kyoto are some of the most popular destinations for Momijigari - Maple Viewing.

As we near the end of our 10-day Maple Viewing Festival at the Seattle Japanese Garden, we asked our gardeners to share their thoughts and knowledge about the garden and our maples in the fall. Enjoy!



1. Autumn Colors 

By Andrea Gillespie, Gardener

Around the end of September the staff here at the Japanese Garden start fielding some version of the same question… ”When is the best time for fall color?” The simplest and perhaps most infuriating answer is… ”When it is! Sometime between now and late October.” Much like the spring blooming, fall color change is a process. In this case, a process of preparing for winter. Before the leaves fall to the ground, the leaf color transforms from the first blush of late summer to the vibrant hues of fall. A display that differs from day to day and year to year.

Photo by Chie Iida

Photo by Chie Iida

The brilliance of color is thought to be most affected by temperature, light, and soil moisture, not just fall but all through the growing season. It is suggested that an ideal combination would be a wet warm spring, a summer that is not too dry, and an autumn filled with dry days and cool nights. Ultimately, the most dependable factor is the shortening of days themselves. As the daylight decreases, the trees and shrubs ready themselves for the cold and dark of winter. Plants get ready to do this by forming a layer of cells at the base of the leaf stem, sometimes referred to as a separation layer or abscission layer. Abscission is defined as a natural detachment of parts of a plant. During the growing season the chlorophyll in the leaves, responsible for both photosynthesis and the green color, is continually replenished. Once the cells start forming the corky layer the chlorophyll is no longer replaced.  As the green pigment breaks down, other colors are revealed.

Photo by Chie Iida

Photo by Chie Iida

The pigments that are responsible for yellow and orange tones are always present in leaves. It’s just that the green pigment is much stronger and masks them during the growing season. The pigments that create red and purple hues are created by sugars that build up in the leaves once the separation process has started.

Thinking about fall color as a reveal or unveiling makes the process seems more alluring than one moment of peak color. So perhaps the best day to view the leaves is the day one happens to be there. The moment one bears witness to an environment release into the natural rhythms of time and begin to simply rest.




2. Maples and Their Place in The Garden 

By Peter Putnicki, Senior Gardener

Perhaps no tree used in gardens reflects the Japanese Garden aesthetic of naturalness like the Japanese maple.  As a native tree of Japan’s mixed and understory forests, these trees naturally present in a wide variety of forms.  Hundreds of varieties exist; some naturally occurring and some selectively bred and propagated.  Forms vary, with two general types, upright and horizontal. Leaf types fall into two categories, entire and dissected.  Within these general categories are a multitude of individual variations.


In the Garden, these trees are placed and maintained to highlight their natural beauty. Graceful branches, arching upward in the case of the upright varieties, or cascading downward in the horizontal varieties are accented by a delicate lacework of fine leaves.  The tree is always encouraged to exemplify the natural habit, never forced to agree with imposed geometry.  The act of pruning maples can be likened to gem-cutting:  We don’t make the precious stone; the Gardener’s task is to find and display its best features.

Photo by Aurora Santiago

Photo by Aurora Santiago

Japanese maples are truly a four-season plant:  In the dead of winter, the graceful and delicate branches standing out in contrast to snow or the featureless grey sky.  In the spring, the bright vibrant green of the new leaves emerging and the gradual, day by day growth and emergence of the ephermal flowers.  In summer, the shadow play of leaves and the branches, depth and coolness of shade.  And, perhaps most notable, the brilliant display of fall.  The beauty of each season is in its impermanence, the daily change and inevitable shift into the next phase.

The collection of maples at the Seattle Japanese Garden helps to showcase some of the variety within the type.  We have a number of upright trees of various heights, sizes and forms, from the lace-leafed koto-no-ito, to the grape-like leaves of the Full-moon maple, to the tiny leaves of the yatsubusa. 

Photo by Aurora Santiago

Photo by Aurora Santiago

The large horizontal maples growing near the entrance demonstrate the complexity and beauty of nature.  We have been careful to use trees to compliment the overall composition, to tastefully avoid novelty for novelties sake or to try to create a comprehensive collection.  Our intention is for the trees here to be a harmonious contribution to the over-all picture and narrative of the Garden.




3. The Maple Variety 

By Miriam Preus, Gardener


Viewed from the harbor overlook in the North end of the Seattle Japanese Garden, the maples reveal their full splendor. A tapestry of oranges, reds, yellows, and cool greens greets the eye and is framed by conifers reaching out into the distance and up into the sky. The wide arc of color spilling across the landscape in this garden is primarily composed of Acer palmatum, Japanese maple.  While our collection does contain many beautiful cultivars, most of the trees that you see from afar are simply Acer palmatum, or Japanese maple, a midsize understory tree endemic to Japan. The wide variation in leaf color or texture occurs naturally, though plant breeders have developed thousands of named varieties that emphasize specific features.

In addition to the Japanese maples there are several other species of maple in the garden, some with surprising leaf shapes or bark texture. A few favorites include the full moon maple, paberbark maple, red snakebark maple, and Nikko maple.  

Full moon maple ( Acer japonicum )

Full moon maple (Acer japonicum)

Of the four, full moon maple, Acer japonicum, bears the most striking resemblance to the Acer palmatum. The full moon maples tend to have larger more rounded leaves with lobes on each leaf that are not cut deeply toward each leaf’s midrib, with the exception of our fern-leaf Japanese maple (A. japonicum ‘aconitifolium’), which has beautiful leaves that are said to resemble the spread tail of a dancing peacock.  They have excellent gold, orange, or rich crimson fall color.

Paperbark maple ( Acer griseum )

Paperbark maple (Acer griseum)

Often visitors exclaim “That’s a maple?” when they are told the tree with the peeling copper bark is called a paperbark maple (A.griseum).  In addition to its shiny exfoliating bark and impressive stature, the paperbark maple has compound leaves, each with three leaflets. This is a striking difference from the Japanese maple, which has 5-7 lobes on each individual leaf.  

The three-leaflet motif is repeated in the Nikko maple, which can be found along the back path. This tree has blackish bark and a twisted trunk that leads up to a canopy of brilliant scarlet leaves.  Although unusual in western gardens, this tree has an extensive range from central Japan into China.

Snakebark maple ( Acer caplillipes )

Snakebark maple (Acer caplillipes)

Red snakebark maple, Acer caplillipes, is another interesting tree in the garden.  The common name hints at the attractive gray and green striped bark, which adds winter interest along with the pleasing architectural shape of the tree’s branches.  Snakebark maple also has leaves that do not look like typical maple leaves.  Their leaves have three to five lobes and serrated leaf edges, with very little indentation between the lobes.

These four, as well as many named cultivars of Japanese maples are labeled during the month of October, so visitors can enjoy getting to know a few threads of the tapestry at a more individual level.  When you visit the Seattle Japanese Garden this fall, be sure to browse through a copy of the Seattle Japanese Garden Maple Guide, a leaflet with excellent pictures and descriptions put together by our plant committee volunteers.


Peter Putnicki is the Senior Gardener for Seattle Japanese Garden and a contributor to the garden’s blog. Andrea Gillespie and Miriam Preus are the Gardeners for the Seattle Japanese Garden and guest writers for this special issue. Thank you!