Dad’s Japanese Maple Tree

I love the Japanese maple tree. The richness of the bold red leaves provide such a great contrast in a perennial garden. They seem to be relatively hardy in partial sun and the shapes of the leaves are mesmerizing.

Japanese maple leaves close up

Back in 2004, when I was in the midst of my first growing season in what was then my new house, I dug up a small section of the yard by hand. Positioned on the side of the house between two little sidewalks going up to the front and side doors, it was really a pain for my sister to mow. (We lived together at the time, and I am allergic to the freshly cut grass.) So, she had less to mow, and I got to play with a brand new canvas of dirt.

During Clean Up Week at the end of that school year, I managed to fall off of my platform sandals and severely injure my ankle. When my parents came out the following week for a preplanned trip, I was still hobbling around on crutches. They had brought with them a ton of river stones that I had unearthed in the yard at my previous home in Ohio, and I was anxious to get them into the garden. I also wanted to get this new garden started. My father had been an avid gardener, so I trusted him to guide me in this new endeavor.

We made quite a pathetic pair as we hobbled around the local nurseries, I on my crutches and he with his cane as he favored a bum hip. Even more comical was the sight of me scooting on my butt around this patch of dirt, as we laid out the new plants and pavers that were going in. I loved the arrangement we designed together, but even more endearing was spending this quality bonding time with my father.

Over the years, the tree grew a little and provided the perfect accent to the bed. It was a variety that was designed to stay small and was often complimented by my neighbors.

In 2011, my father passed away. My world, which was already fragile for other reasons I will likely share in other stories, crumbled. I didn’t know how to process it and neglected the garden more than I should have.

In 2012, the tree didn’t bud. I kept waiting and waiting for something to happen, but it didn’t. I was devastated. Here was this piece of my father that was supposed to still be alive, and it was dead. But I couldn’t bring myself to dig it up. I only cut it back a bit and hoped.

Move forward to 2013. Again, the tree didn’t do anything. I ran into “The Tree Guy” at one of the local farmers markets, from whom I had purchased a threadleaf Japanese maple tree, and asked him about it. He was apologetic, but said sometimes they just don’t make it. I still couldn’t dig it up. The thought of doing it made me ill and a voice in my head kept telling me to leave it alone.

2014 rolled around and I knew I needed to get out to clean up that big bed. Everything was overgrown and weed trees were starting to take root. I also figured it was time to remove the dead Japanese maple tree and consider purchasing a new one to put in its place.

I discovered a miracle.

There at the bottom of the dead tree were tiny new branches starting to grow. I remember shrieking and crying and taking pictures to send to my best friend. “Dad’s tree is back! He came back!” It seemed very fragile, so I was careful to keep other plants from encroaching upon its space. I checked on it almost daily. By the end of the season, it had filled out nicely, almost like a little bush, and its glorious autumnal change was spectacular.

Dad's Japanese maple in the fall

Last year, it was still holding its own and I gave thanks every time I looked at it. A part of my dad was still here and living in my garden. Now this year, it has again filled out and thriving. Something about the wonky winter and spring that we had is making the Japanese maple tree thrive in our area this year. I still like to tell myself that Dad has a bit of a hand in it.

Dad's Japanese maple

Dad’s fifth anniversary was just this past week. For some reason, this year it hit me harder than the past few years. A lot of factors probably went into that, but I have heard that can be pretty normal for those multiples of five. I did spend some time reminiscing and mourning over those few days. The day after the anniversary, I declared that this bed was going to officially be the memorial garden to my father, and I spent several hours cleaning it out. I am proud of how it looks. I am still in love with this Japanese maple tree. It just meshes well with everything around it.

clematis japanese maple tree

I love you, Dad. I miss you every day. But your legacy will live on.

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