When I first started gardening, I was at a local independent garden center with my grandma. She was looking for something specific to plant in the little area in front of her condo. We walked by the Japanese maples and both admired how beautiful they were.

Before we left, she said to me, “You need one of those for your place.”

I don’t remember if I’d said something like, “I’d love to have one of those someday,” or not, but before we left, a Japanese maple had hopped in the back of the mini-van. Grandmas are fun that way. They have a sneaky way of knowing just what you might want before you even know you want it. And sometimes they know you want it and it gives them joy to grant your wish.

Grandma is gone now, but that Japanese maple stands sentinel at the corner of our back door. It was small when we planted it too close to the house. We didn’t know how big it would get. It towers at about 12 feet and it’s responded well to minor pruning needed to let us walk by without getting poked in the eye.

First of all, what is a Japanese maple and how are they different from our native maple trees? It lies in the species of the tree and the location they come from. Almost all maple trees are of the genus Acer. Each kind of maple is a different species, which is the second part of a plant’s botanical name. Sugar maple is Acer saccharum, red maple is Acer rubrum, Norway maple is Acer plantinoides, and so on.

Japanese maples are classified similarly. In plant labeling, the species – the second part of its binomial label – often is descriptive of the plant. In this case, palmatum describes the leaves. One of the most beautiful things about Japanese maples is their unique leaf shape.

One of our Japanese maples, Acer palmatum ‘Koto No Ito’ (‘Harp Strings’), has extremely skinny, deeply lobed leaves. Another we have, Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’ is just the opposite, with leaves that almost remind me of the webbed feet of frogs.

In most cases, Japanese maples have a distinct look, with their leaves and their growth habit. They generally are slow growing and stay smaller than the usual maple trees we’re familiar with here. They tend to be more expensive and many specific varieties are more difficult to find than their native North American counterparts.

With us being in USDA Zone 5B/6A, cold hardiness can be an issue with growing Japanese maples. For this reason, it is recommended that we grow them in a protected location, out of the way of harsh winter winds. Some Japanese maples are grafted to hardier rootstock, which can help with this issue.

I learn so much from my friends and neighbors, including those that I’ve met across the country, either in person at events or through connections on Facebook. Recently, I learned some new information about some maples that I thought were Japanese maples, but it turned out that they weren’t quite, even though some were calling them that.

It all started when someone posted some new maples (new to me, at least), I shared the post, and commented about these new “Japanese” maples. But they weren’t Japanese maples at all, even though that’s what they looked like. These were Korean maple (Acer pseudosieboldianum) hybrids.

Korean maples look very much like Japanese maples, but they tend to be more cold-hardy, which is why they are desirable to use in breeding. Japanese maples can be tender to zones colder than Zone 5.

By crossing a Japanese maple with a Korean maple, breeders have been able to come up with a maple that has the disease-resistant qualities of the Japanese and the cold hardiness of the Korean maple. The University of Wisconsin has developed a Japanese-Korean hybrid like this, which is marketed under the trade name of Acer pseudosieboldianum x palmatum Northern Glow®.

While all of that can sound complicated and confusing, all we really need to know is that Japanese and Korean maples and their hybrids are not native, but can be grown here as beautiful ornamental trees that can add charm and character to a landscape.

Read more at Kylee's blog, Our Little Acre, at www.ourlittleacre.com. Contact her on Facebook or by email at pauldingprogressgardener@gmail.com.