a world of unusual japanese maples, ginkgoes, and metasequoias, with tim nichols
WHAT TO EVEN SAY about a nursery that offers more than 1,200 cultivars of Japanese maple, but it’s true: brothers Tim and Matt Nichols do, at Nichols Nursery in East Flat Rock, North Carolina. And they’re not stopping there.
I have known some extreme plant geeks in my time–people whose combined lust and knowledge set them on a course, sometimes to very out-of-the-way places around the world, to find, collect, and eventually disseminate stuff that wasn’t your average red geranium or generic hosta.
One of those longtime he’s-gotta-have-it botanical OCD types, Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina, introduced me to the Nichols brothers. What started as the quest to meet and acquire every possible variation of Japanese maple imaginable then mutated–and sometimes in the unusual-plant business maybe mutation is a good thing, yielding new discoveries—that Nichols family maple passion mutated into one for ginkgoes, too, and then metasequoias and more.
The transcript of the September 26, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast follows:
my japanese maple and ginkgo q&a with tim nichols
Q. A little background: You and Matt are not the first members of your family to be maple-mad, correct? [Above, Matt, left, and Tim Nichols.]
A. Oddly enough my grandmother planted Japanese maples in the 1950s, and that was years and years and years ago—that’s on my Mom’s side. On my father’s side, my Dad started growing Japanese maples in the 1970s.
So when he and my mother met they had a nice little maple union, and us two seedlings—we popped out as a result. We got our passion for gardening and our passion for Japanese maples from both sides of the family. We’ve really been blessed. [Top-of-page photo, Tim and Matt’s parents’ garden full of maples.]
Q. There currently more than 1,000 Japanese maples in the listing? [Above, details of ‘Mikawa nishiki’]
A. We’re actually right around 1,200 to 1,400 varieties of Japanese maples grafted onto Acer palmatum, and that’s not including different varieties of Trident maples and other unique maples that we produce.
Q. And now you have a mail-order nursery and is it also retail in person?
A. We sure do—by appointment at nursery. We do that because with such a big, diverse selection, it really requires us to walk around with the people, and really explain them what each of the trees are and what they’re looking for.
Q. And with your mail-order: It’s not just little 3-inch pots but you ship larger plants, too.
A. We sure do, we ship 1-gallon trees and 3-gallon trees. We have a custom-designed box that allows us to mail-order all across the country every single week of the year. So we’re shipping year-round. We’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Q. So let’s start with Japanese maples, as you (and your parents before you) did. Gardeners know what a “Japanese maple” is–if they close their eyes they probably imagine something like a ‘Bloodgood’ standard red-leafed maple. But then when they look at your site this familiar plant may not look so familiar when they start clicking around. Describe some of the diversity.
A. With Japanese maples there is nothing that can beat them in their texture, their spring color, their fall color, their differentiation in size. There are some dwarfs that don’t get much taller than 1 to 2 feet, while other varieties may get from 20 to 30 feet in that 20-year window.
At our nursery we often talk about maturity as a 15- to 20-year window, because with Japanese maples or ginkgoes or dawn redwoods, some of these can live for hundreds or even thousands of years. It’s always good to note that we talk about sizes in a 15- to 20-year window.
But there are dwarf weeping lace-leaf varieties that people love, as well as your upright trees, and everything in between. There are red varieties, green varieties, variegated selections—varieties that have pink and white variegation on the leaves. And that can be upright or a weeping form.
There is such a diversity in every way. The only way it can really be summed up is “ever-changing beauty.”
A. That’s the best way to describe Japanese maples and the diversity.
Q. Right now you have 1,200 to 1,400 different Japanese maples—incomprehensible to me how I could even learn to tell them all apart. So what’s the thing now, if you’re one of these aficionados, what have been the things that have been sought lately: a particular color, or the bigness of the foliage, or fall color? What have been the hot things to pursue lately?
A. One of the plants that has been real, real hot with Japanese maples aficionados is one called ‘Peve Starfish’ [above], and the reason being is that the leaves just cut downward, and make it look like a starfish. It’s really the things that are unique, and beautiful in their uniqueness, that make certain Japanese very hot.
‘Peve Starfish’ has a red leaf. It’s an introduction from Piet Vergeldt in Holland. It’s a dwarf upright red tree to 6 or 8 feet, and everyone wants a dwarf upright red anyway. So when they see this little tree with leaves that cut downward like a starfish, it’s a no-brainer for many gardeners.
Q. What about hardiness—I’m a Northern gardener, though you are not. One of the raps about Japanese maples up here, and why ‘Bloodgood’ that I mentioned earlier became the ubiquitous one here was because it was thought to withstand our winters with less damage. Do people come to you and ask about hardiness, with your being in North Carolina?
A. We’re in western North Carolina, up in the mountains near Asheville. We have a very cold winter; a few years ago we got down to negative 8 and negative 10. One of the things that makes us different is that we grow all our own rootstocks—which is good because you can control your root systems and make sure you’re selecting varieties for rootstock that shut down during the winter.
Also by not over-fertilizing your tree, you can make sure your plant’s going to be very hardy going into the winter. Sometimes you find places that will keep pushing their trees, and trying to get the biggest tree the quickest, and it doesn’t shut down during the winter.
Japanese maples when grown correctly are good in Zones 5-9, and I even have some customers that often push into Zone 4, and some selections we do can even push to Zone 3. They’re very hardy naturally; they’re all mainly a rootstock selection—and
because my grandmother planted varieties in the 1950s, we selected varieties that could handle nice cold weather.
The biggest issue is that people were often shipping trees in from huge nurseries that were pushing their tree as a product, and that’s a tree that will have trouble shutting down in a colder climate. We grow our trees slower and more responsibly, but we still have 1-gallon and 3-gallon sizes but it takes us a year or two longer to get there.
Q. So we want it to be hardened off when it goes into the winter.
A. Exactly. That’s one of the biggest problems with Japanese maples: People will put a 180-day release fertilizer on a tree in September, and if you count the days, your plant’s not going to be shutting down for the winter.
Q. We could tape a whole other segment about misuse of fertilizer.
Q. I’m with you on that. [Laughter.]
You mentioned that everybody wants a dwarf red—what else do they want? I’m crazy about the Full Moon kinds—chartreuse-y color and a big leaf.
A. ‘Moonrise’ [above] is an excellent example of a beautiful Full Moon type that’s vigorous that can handle not only the cold but can handle more sunlight than varieties like ‘Autumn Moon.’ It’s brighter pink colors, and is an amazing Full Moon plant for the characteristics that you desire.
One plant that’s really amazing that people are hot on right now is ‘Ryusen.’ [below]. The original name was ‘Ryu Sei,’ which means dragon fountain. The thing that makes this one different is it’s a weeping Japanese maple that will get as tall as you stake it. It’s very vigorous, really cold-tolerant and will literally get as tall as you stake it—and is one of the most cascading forms of Japanese maple. It has green, regular-style leaves instead of the lace leaves. Because of that uniqueness and the weeping habit—because of that green palmate leaf instead of that more lacy foliage—it makes it a hot, hot item.
We actually went and saw the original ‘Ryusen’ plants in Japan this past fall, and it was amazing to visit the Kobayashi Nursery, which introduced that tree. They’ve been in business for 28 generations there; it’s an amazing experience. We drove 3,000 miles in Japan just going around looking at maple collections and visiting nurseries. It was maple-geek heaven over there.
Q. I bet, a dream come true. [Laughter.] Speaking of that: Is there a whole secret club of people trading maple varieties or what? I see people like yourself putting pictures on Facebook of some new thing they’ve just scored—some new variegated leaf of something—and all the other people are saying, “I’ve got to get that, I’ve got to get that.” Like baseball cards. [Laughter.]
A. It’s one of those things once you have one or two Japanese maples, it’s not enough. You put them in your garden and you just grow to love them, because they’re extremely beautiful with color changes, and so many shapes and sizes that will fit in almost any spot in the garden. You think, “I’ve got a spot; I want to put a Japanese maple in there.” It’s really addicting.
The way it ended up happening is we started trading scions or little cutting of trees that we graft and propagate at the nursery. We started trading those with people all over the United States, and what eventually happens is when you have such a large collection like we do—and we really are very thorough in how we evaluate them—so often when people find a new variety, they send it to us first to evaluate and ask if it’s worthy of being named. Is it different from all the other thousands of varieties that you have?
It’s often fun, and our cultivar list grows without us doing any work at all, because people want something we have, and we’ll trade them for something they have. [Laughter.]
Q. Like I said: baseball cards, to name a very vintage and dated reference.
What about bark color? Some the bark is not your conventional brownish or grayish—some is more green, and then I’ve seen the coral-bark maple and such. In some is the bark the distinguishing factor?
A. We’ve got one that we will release next spring, an introduction of ours called ‘Gold Digger,’ and it has bright, bright yellow bark. The spring color on the leaves is a peach color—something unique and different for a yellow-bark or coral-bark or green-bark maple.
We also carry varieties of coral-bark maple like one that gets to around 10 feet, called ‘Baton Roug.’ [above]. The name literally means red stick or red twig. We were traveling down in Texas, and hear of this tree growing in full sun in Houston, and we think: “We’ve got to track down this tree.”
We’re running from nursery to nursery saying, “Have you seen this?” We get the guy’s phone number, get a hotel room nearby, and sure enough there’s a gorgeous coral bark. But the unique thing about ‘Baton Rouge’ is that the bark turns red during the winter, but the fall color itself is actually red. All the other coral barks so far have been a yellow fall color.
Q. So you and Matt, your brother in this business, veered off the maple course into Ginkgo. How and when did that happen?
A. My brother, Matt, was traveling in Europe. He came to me and said, “Tim, you’ve got to see these plants.” I was in college at the time and could not travel, but he said, “Look at the diversity of ginkgo trees they have in Europe.” He said the trend was so hot in Europe that we had to jump on it.
So when we expanded to one plant, it’s just one of those things where we start out with your basic tree, and then start digging in and find there’s a weeping form, a dwarf form, many amazing forms that people don’t know about. And you can get a grafted male ginkgo tree that’s not going to fruit and have that stinkiness that the female ginkgoes do.
Typically Europe is 10 to 15 years ahead of gardening trends than America, and that is definitely what has happened with the ginkgoes. You’re seeing a rise in people loving the ginkgo fall color, and realizing now that they can get a grafted male selection and be really beautiful, and have that shape that people love, and the beautiful leaves—and amazing yellow fall color. That yellow fall color is hard to beat in any plant.
Q. It’s interesting to hear you say that you have lots of varieties, because Ginkgo is an ancient genus and if I am not confusing things I believe it is what’s called monotypic–there is only one species remaining in the genus, our G. biloba–so that’s it. It’s the only ginkgo and I believe also it’s the only extant species in its whole taxonomic order, that tree is so special. So it’s a one of a kind tree…well, except that you have 50 kinds. [Laughter.]
A. Ginkgo is actually considered a living fossil. And for native-plant people: Ginkgoes were native to North America during the Paleocene, nearly 7 million years ago. I’m a big proponent in bring back the ginkgo native—plant them everywhere. [Laughter.]
Q. So you have ones that are more garden-sized than the basic straight species?
A. Ginkgoes are good in Zones 3-10, so they’re hardy almost all across the country. They’re pollution-tolerant, which is good for big cities. They’re heat-tolerant, which again is great for almost any southwest exposure. They’re drought-tolerant, and cold-tolerant—always great up north. And they’re also salt-tolerant, so you can plant them near the coast and not worry about them getting damaged from the salt.
There are a lot of different dwarf varieties, and one that’s becoming popular right now is called ‘Mariken’ [above]. A lot of people here say it like “Merican” like “America,” or American ginkgo, but it’s actually a Dutch woman’s name. It’s a dwarf male ginkgo that if grafted low will get to 3 or 4 feet and 3 or 4 feet wide. That’s one that’s great for garden size, but also for containers as well.
Q. I thought till I spoke to you recently on the phone that the fact that I have both the plain green straight species of Metasequoia and the gold-leaf cultivar ‘Ogon’ [above] that I was pretty well decked out in Metasequoia. And all the ones I have get pretty big. But you have now veered into this as well—the dawn redwoods.
A. We have. What typically happens with us is we find one plant that’s simply amazing, and then we collect and start growing all the varieties to figure out how they differentiate, how they’re different or unique, and what makes them super amazing.
The plant that got us into dawn redwoods is a variety called ‘Schirrmann’s Nordlicht’—it’s a mouthful to say—but it’s a dwarf dawn redwood that grows 4-6 feet in 10-15 years. It has bright creamy foliage. It was a dwarf mutation found in Germany by Schirrmann, and was taken to a friend of ours over in Holland.
He produced it, sent it to other friends in Oregon who donated one to the J.C. Raulston Arboretum. And it was crazy because when I walked up to the tree—I was going to take cuttings off that one Raleigh, NC, to produce it—and lo and behold Henk Van Kampen from Holland was visiting at the exact same time we walked up to the tree. We’ve been Facebook friends for years, but we’ve never met in person. It was fun to hear the whole story of how it made its way from Europe to the United States and oddly enough this was from one of the first crops of ‘Schirrmann’s Nordlicht,’ and only 4-6 feet after 10 or 15 years of that bright creamy foliage.
Q. And compared to the straight species, which grows like a weed—a very fast-growing tree for me—that’s quite a difference. I had used the word mutation in the introduction, not knowing that example, but that’s one. [Laughter.] When a mutation’s a good thing.
A. It’s one of those trees that when you put it in the landscape, it really lights up the spot because of that creamy foliage.
I really like the dawn redwoods, because while you want to give them partial to full sun, they can also handle those boggy areas in your yard where you can’t put a lot of other plants. If you have a place that is getting too wet, a dawn redwood is excellent for those areas. They can handle some drier areas as well. But they fit in those spots that my Japanese maples and ginkgoes can’t always fit in.
Q. And I noticed you’ve also got some interesting Chinese fringe trees, so I hope we’ll speak again soon.
more on maples and ginkgoes
- The ancient ginkgo, with Dr. Peter Crane
- Japanese and other choice maples, with Adam Wheeler of Broken Arrow
- The Nichols’s websites MrMaple and MrGinkgo
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).