The Shishigashira Japanese Maple
One of the more stately green upright Japanese maples is the Shishigashira. It is widely recognized by maple lovers but not widely planted due to its relative rarity in the trade. Due to its slow growth and "awkward" sparse appearance when young, it frustrates many growers. Its high price in garden centers is due both to the extra years needed to produce a fine specimen and a much higher cullage rate than the more easily produced maples such as, Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood' and Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Queen'. It is a valuable addition to the garden and deserves a rich focal point. Shishigashira is the perfect patio container tree and very popular for bonsai and seikei in Japan. I would like to share some history of the plant with you.
Shishigashira translates into lion's head. The fullness of the tree's broadly columnar growth habit, with it's densely layered leaves presents a vivid image of the lion's mane, especially in its autumn coloration. Shishigashira Japanese maple actually consist of two very old cultivars, Acer palmatum 'Mejishi' and Acer palmatum 'Ojishi', whose names are based on the mythological female and male lions in Japanese drama. The Shishigashira costume is worn performing the Shishimai or lion dance,which dates back as far as the twelfth century. This dance is performed to exorcise spirits and invite good luck. Both cultivars are of the Acer palmatum subspecies amoenum, but are now commonly listed under the 'Dwarf' grouping in references.
'Mejishi', the female lion, is the more common type and is usually found in the trade simply as Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira'. The leaf of 'Mejishi' is very similar to Ribes alpinum, the alpine currant. Because of this likeness, it has been marketed in England as Acer palmatum 'Ribesifolium,' often misspelled 'Ribescifolium.' In the past, Shishigashirawas grown in The Netherlands under the names Acer palmatum 'Crispum' and 'Cristatum', referring to Shishigashira's crispate leaves. These names have confusingly shown up in the United States along with the badly chosen synonyms 'Crispa' and 'Cristata'.
'Mejishi' has a very compact habit with the prolifically ascending branches creating the dense congested appearance of the tree. The thick leaves are snugly arranged on short, thickset twigs. They are one to two inches in length, dark green in color and have five or seven lobes with two small basil lobes. The leaves have the traditional serrated edges of palmatum and while all palmatums have a modest valley between the center vein and the leaf edge, the mejishi valley is especially deep which accentuates its turned up leaf edge giving it a crinkled look. The growth rate depends on the cultural care provided. Properly fertilized plants in the landscape will put on several inches of growth a year, which is quite slow, compared to most other palmatums. More accelerated growth is possible in container production with optimum fertilization and irrigation. Our large boxed specimens here at Iseli Nursery can put on over twelve-inch shoots a season! Comparatively, this rate is about half of the fast growing Acer palmatum 'Bloodgood,' which can easily exceed two feet of growth per year. Mature tree height for 'Mejishi' is approximately twenty feet.
The extraordinary autumn coloration of 'Mejishi' is difficult to describe. Intense golden foliage together with purple, red and orange tones produce its legendary display. This astonishing change takes place several weeks later than other varieties of Japanese maple, extending your garden's color display. After leaf drop, the abundance of ascending knotty branching provides a remarkable, and somewhat curious winter aspect to the landscape.
Ojishi', the male lion, is always found in the trade as Acer palmatum 'Ojishi', although sometimes misspelled 'Ohjishi'. It has a similar but more dwarfed structure than 'Mejishi' and is much more rare in production. The lighter green leaves of this multi-branched tree are more closely packed together on the stem. Moreover, they are slightly larger and less crinkled, showing more of the coarse serrations of the lobes. The growth rate is again dependent on cultural conditions. One to two inches per year for an established landscape tree is normal. In ideal conditions in Oregon, six to eight inches of growth in containers is possible. Mature tree size is approximately eight feet, less than half that of' Mejishi'. The lack of usable scion wood for propagation is the primary reason for 'Ojishi's rarity, especially in climates that have slower growth rates.
One of the best attributes of 'Ojishi' is the brilliant rose color of the spring flush. The autumn coloration of 'Ojishi' is not quite as magnificent as 'Mejishi'. However, it remains one of the best color displays in the maple world.
Both of these beautiful, although under utilized cultivars are valuable and useful trees for the landscape and worthy of more attention. Hear their roar in your garden!
Edward Remsrola is highly respected at Iseli Nursery, Inc., an early contributor to the American Conifer Society Bulletin, and was a soul mate of the late Jean Iseli.