Dedicated to the delicate grace of the Japanese maple in all its sculptural glory.
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Acer palmatum ‘Trompenburg’ at Acer Acres in Hanover County. AcerAcresInc.com
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Elizabeth Mundy with Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa yatsubusa’.AcerAcresInc.com
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Acer japonicum 'Fullmoon maple'. AcerAcresInc.com
For enthusiasts of japanesemaples, heaven is marked with a small, discreet sign: “Acer Acres, Wholesale Nursery, Visitors by Appointment Only.” The first time I visited, in search of a specimen for a client in Washington, D.C., I missed it entirely and had to turn around. This time, I’m luckier, and I need only one try to find the long, downward-sloping drive that leads me to the Hanover County nursery and its proprietor, Elizabeth Mundy.
She greets me with a friendly “Howdy!” Mundy is dressed for the day’s heat in shorts, a T-shirt and sturdy work shoes. It’s late spring and the nursery is a dazzling display of fully leafed Japanese maples—50,000 of them. She treats me to a walking tour of the property, starting with a brief tutorial on grafting. She goes on to point out the mature Japanese maples on the farm as well as the younger ones growing in containers. We eventually stop at one of her favorites, the Acer palmatum ‘Shiraname.’ It is a cultivar, or a variety, identified as far back as 1710, that she informs me is rarely seen in production. “It’s a personal favorite. I send this and other underused cultivars to growers and arboreta around the country.” ‘Shiraname’ is cherished for its bright red spring foliage that gradually changes to green during the summer, only to turn an “extravagant yellow,” she says, in the fall. One of Mundy’s goals, along with running a profitable business, is to keep available as many of the very old cultivars as possible so they won’t be lost.
The Japanese have two words for the Acer varieties that comprise Japanese maples. One is kaede, meaning “frog’s hand” and the other is momiji, which once meant “baby’s hand.” The deeply divided, sometimes filigreed lobes of Japanese maple leaves do recall the small fingers of an infant reaching into the air.
The unique leaves have fascinated collectors and casual viewers for centuries. Acer palmatum and A. japonicum—the two species that comprise most, but not all, Japanese maples—are both native to Japan. The Japanese have selected and propagated different forms of these plants for centuries. By the early 20th century, the Japanese had produced hundreds of unique cultivars, with the first known specimen planted in England in 1820. Sadly, during World War II, much of the propagation in Japan stopped, and many cultivars were destroyed or lost. In the fourth edition of Japanese Maples: The Complete Guide to Selection and Cultivation by J.D. Vertrees and Peter Gregory, widely considered the authoritative work on Japanese maples, a nurseryman tells of his ancestors having put together a very large collection of cultivars over the generations, only to have many of the trees burned as firewood. Luckily, interest in Japanese maples was renewed in Japan in the 1960s, allowing for wider distribution of older cultivars to the rest of the world, including Acer Acres—Mundy’s 23-acre artisanal nursery in Beaverdam, about a half-hour southwest of Fredericksburg. Like many specialty businesses, it grew out of a love for the product.
Mundy and her late husband, Al Gardner, bought the farm in 1988 to house Gardner’s growing collection of Japanese maples. Before marrying, Gardner was a part owner and manager at Colesville Nursery in Ashland, where he was introduced to the beauty of the trees. His passion for them proved contagious; Mundy, despite not knowing anything about horticulture, also fell in love with cultivating them. “We were married on January 1, which I thought was quite romantic, until I found Al had cleverly scheduled this to coincide with the optimum grafting season for Japanese maples.” She happily recalls spending her honeymoon grafting a new crop of maples.
During the late 1980s and ’90s, most Japanese maples were being grown on the West Coast and shipped east. The lengthy cultivation period and the long-distance freight made Japanese maples expensive. The Gardners saw an opportunity to compete with West Coast nurseries and, within a few years, were able to quit their day jobs and turn their attention to making Acer Acres the thriving business it is today.
Part of the charm of Japanese maples is the variety of forms in which they grow. They can be upright and vase-shaped, or weeping and cascading. They can mature at three feet tall or 25 feet tall. Their leaves can be palmate (fan-shaped), dissected (cut-leaf), fern-leafed or orbicular (round). The bark of a Japanese maple may be yellow, coral, burgundy or green. From root to branch, the range of their fall colors is kaleidoscopic: yellow, orange, bright red or deep maroon. Mundy likens the selection of a Japanese maple to “picking out someone else’s perfume. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
In addition to their beauty, Mundy says there are practical horticultural reasons for choosing a Japanese maple. “They do not require high nitrogen levels, so can easily survive in most regular garden soil without the need for additional fertilizers,” she explains. “They are also disease- and pest-resistant.”
Acer Acres has over 400 cultivars, but because of time and space limitations, they pick 20 or so and produce up to 20,000 grafts each year. The rest are grafted in smaller numbers and then rotated into the main grafting goup every several years, so that Mundy has something new coming along in each cycle.
Thanks to the variety of trees Mundy has under cultivation, some retail nurseries opt to let Acer Acres choose the types of Japanese maples they will receive—often unusual cultivars beyond the three or four most commonly seen in nurseries. “They can provide parameters, like ‘I want 50 percent red’ or ‘50 percent weeping,’ but we can incorporate more unique material. Often after a few years, nurseries let us pick out their entire selection,” explains Mundy.
The joy of running a nursery also comes with challenges. “During one severe spring thunderstorm, a tornado tore off all the shade cloth and then we had a horrific hail storm—a grower’s worst nightmare. Many plants had to be thrown away, but most just needed pruning and a little TLC,” Mundy recalls. With the help of their now-adult children, Mundy says, “We spent two weeks on our hands and knees putting the shade cloth back together. The bright spot was the feeling of gratitude that we succeeded together in repairing the damage and were able to move on.”
Despite the rigors and occasional terrors of running a nursery, Mundy cherishes the rewards. One of her favorites, she says, is walking through a greenhouse and spying a particular tree on its most beautiful day as it offers a delicate flower or bursts with its first flamboyant fall color. Another is seeing buds break on newly grafted branches in the propagation house.
“Even after decades of grafting many thousands of maples, somewhere in my heart, I always wonder if it can truly work, and I’m blown away Mother Nature actually lets us create new plants.”