The Lion’s Head

One of the first trips I took to Oregon, some thirty years ago, to acquire nursery stock for our garden center; I found myself smitten with a certain tree. Determined to see and know everything I could, as if that’s possible in one outing, I landed in Portland, Oregon. Drawing a 50-mile circumference from Pioneer Square, in downtown Portland, near where my hotel was, I mapped out every nursery I wanted to visit. Many of the finest nursery growers in our country are in Oregon! The plant depth, availability, cultivars and sizes are steeped there in the “fertile crescent”, and I’m not talking about Mesopotamia.

The story goes as this: after visiting one of my favorite nurseries, disciplined for their staunch commitment to growing some of the finest, cutting edge, Japanese maple cultivars, I learned that the value of their plants goes far beyond any price tag. Their ability to offer supreme merchandise in near perfect, fertile soil, seldom irrigated, still perplexes me to this day. At the forefront of this nursery, matching V-shaped shaped Lion’s Head Japanese maple trees, Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira” adorn their entrance. I was told that one of our country’s wealthiest entrepreneurs offered to buy these mature, stately trees, some of the oldest in our country, only to be turned away. A decision based on appreciation rather than simple financial gains.

Lion’s Head Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’, is a distinct Japanese (female) maple type that has ascending branches, thickly covered with dense layers of foliage. Small, green, heavily textured leaves coat the tree’s outward spreading branches, and in the fall, brilliant shades of orange and yellow greet you, showcasing the season’s dramatic color display. This maple, also known as ‘Meijishi’, the name for the mythological female lion of Japanese drama, I was corrected, and rightfully so, by one of our best customers and friend. “John”, who’s photographic memory often astounds me as his discipline lies more in the financial world rather than the horticultural. However, a “true plant lover”, my friend called me out and corrected me between the distinction of ‘Shishigashira’ and ‘Ojishi’ (female vs. male). ‘Shishigashira’ grows comfortably to 10-15 feet high and 7-10 feet wide. A gorgeous, broad upright tree, hardy to zone 5, Lion’s Head grows 6-12 inches a year and appreciates full sun to part shade. Tight, congested foliage, appearing to flower from a distance, and its fabulous fall color are the reasons why we chose it for either side of our home’s front entrance. Appreciative of some part afternoon shade, avoiding hot afternoon sun and dry soil types are a few keys to its success. Native to Japan, Korea and China, this maple type has 5-7 pointed toothed lobes. Small reddish-purple flowers in umbels happen in mid spring, followed by samaras (those things we put on our noses as kids) that ripen in September and October. An important side note; it has been said that this tree is tolerant of rabbits and Black Walnut, juglone. Finally, this highly sculptural tree form has no serious insect or disease problems.

The male counterpart Lion’s Head Maple, Acer palmatum ‘Ojishi’, is named for the mythological male lion of Japanese drama. Displaying short branches loaded with small, densely packed, rich green leaves, again there is a sculptural quality that exists. ‘Ojishi’s’ green leaves develop into burnt orange-gold hues in the fall and it is here that one can conjure up visions of a lion’s head mane. A superb cultivar for small areas, including bonsai culture, this tree-mendous tree grows to about ten feet tall and 7 feet wide. Crinkled foliage and vibrant fall color are features that help define this “male lion”. Japanese literature, in the 1700’s, talks about ‘Ojishi’ as the male counterpart to the famous ‘Shishigashira’. Clearly “John” read and absorbed this factoid as I fumbled and reversed their sexes. Older growth, twisted and flattened, more than the new growth of ‘Shishigashira’ is a distinguishing characteristic between the two trees. ‘Ojishi’ is a rare, dwarf, deciduous beauty, uncommon even in advanced horticultural circles. Important to note; ‘Ojishi’ can handle full sun or full shade with only the fall markings being sacrificed.
Should you be in search for a sculptural, architectural beauty, with distinct form, texture and fall color… look no further than Lion’s Head maples! “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture comparable to that of the garden.”-Thomas Jefferson