Small hybrid maple is winter-hardy

The recently introduced North Wind maple can take low temperatures, unlike many Japanese maples.

Just about everyone loves Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). These small trees have an artistic shape, stylish foliage and eye-grabbing autumn color. In the opinion of woody landscape guru Michael Dirr, a Japanese maple “definitely lends an aristocratic touch” to the landscape.

Trouble is, Japanese maples don’t really love growing in the upper Midwest. Those that fare best are planted in morning sun and afternoon shade, and where the soil never stays soggy. On the other hand, dry soil won’t do, either. You also have to be careful which variety you buy; many are not winter-hardy here. While I’ve seen a lot of young Japanese maples in our region, relatively few seem to make it to maturity.

That’s why I was excited to learn about North Wind maple, recently introduced by Iseli Nursery. This hybrid has a Japanese maple for one parent and the tough-as-nails Korean maple (Acer pseudosieboldianum) for the other. Winter hardiness is a solid USDA zone 4.

Alan Craig, the wholesale nursery’s representative for the upper Midwest, lives in Iowa, south of Dubuque. He says the North Wind maple he planted on his acreage in 2007 withstood a temperature of minus-32 degrees in 2009 with no dieback. That same winter, many Japanese maples nearby died back to the ground.

The new leaves of North Wind emerge red in spring, then gradually turn to what Craig’s wife calls terra cotta. By summer, the foliage is green with perhaps some red tones, but then turns a dramatic scarlet-orange in autumn. The best foliage color is in full sun, but North Wind also does well in partial shade.

In winter, the one- and two-year-old stems have a soft orange glow that Craig says stands out against the gray of his native stand of oaks and hickories. Not dramatic, he cautions, like a red-twig dogwood, for example, but nevertheless distinct. I applaud that. If we’re going to live where the dormant season is typically half the year, give or take, even a hint of cold-season color is worthy of celebration.

The best place for any small maple, Craig says, is on the east or north side of a building or where a bigger tree will break up the winter sun and keep the thin bark from cracking.

Craig says you can probably find a North Wind maple at an independent garden center this spring. If not this year, then do what I do: Put it on your wish list and try again next spring. The company is working hard to produce more of this new introduction to keep up with demand.

According to Iseli Nursery, there are more hardy small hybrid maples to come. North Wind is only the first in their hardy Jack Frost series.

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