Plant Preview

Welcome to Plant Preview, a blog dedicated to helping gardeners learn about gardening techniques and preview new plant cultivars. Read about new plants here first and hear how your "comrades in compost" are making use of new plant introductions in their gardens and landscapes. Blog author Geri Laufer is a life-long dirt gardener, degreed horticulturist, author and former County Extension Agent. Plant Preview is copyrighted by Geri Laufer.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Fire Dragon® Shantung Maple Flames Red

Maple Selection Brings “New England Red” Color to Midwestern Fall Landscapes

Fire Dragon® Shantung Maple delivers vivid reds and dazzling scarlets rarely seen in the Midwest or lower-Midwest landscape in autumn. A tough, hardy and well-behaved mid-size maple (to 35 feet), Fire Dragon® is the first introduced selection of Acer truncatum, commonly known as Purple-blow or Shantung Maple (pronounced ‘Shan-doon’ ).

Fire Dragon® was selected from thousands of seedlings for its glorious, brilliant red fall color so elusive to the lower-Midwest. Finding a consistent red for hot, sunny climates has long been a challenge for plains states gardeners and designers. With the straight species, new spring foliage is a beautiful reddish-purple leaf color in spring (“purple-blow”), turning to dark green for summer, then presenting brilliant yellow color in fall. However, each autumn Fire Dragon® reliably provides the sought-after, luminous reds found in New England to the Midwest (and the rest of the country). Grower Keith Johansson has observed three different autumn reds (anthocyanin compounds based on soil pH and environmental factors) including: bright, true, cardinal red; currant red with Chinese yellow margins; and a compelling reddish-orange. 

Spring and early summer leaf color on Fire Dragon® turns from burnt orange to pink and rose-red, and then to bright red when growing vigorously in May. Red pigments help protect the new leaves from ultra-violet rays and from insects until they can harden-off.  Summer leaf color is a pleasing, sparkling green on thick, waxy leaves; lowered transpiration rates help trees thrive in hot summers. New summer growth put on by this cultivar is typically a dark red throughout the season, although it may vary with temperature, soil pH, soil nutrients or levels of sunshine, and can range from dark red to brighter red to mostly green.

The elegant, distinctive leaf shape of Fire Dragon® is reminiscent of curly parsley. The species name, truncate, refers to a broad, flat leaf base at the petiole, however, the two basal lobes of Fire Dragon® face downward. While most Shantungs have a larger central lobe, in Fire Dragon® the leaf lobes are equal in size and fit inside a perfect circle.

Small, lemony, greenish-yellow flowers appear in late spring on 3-inch corymbs, followed by winged, purplish samara fruits that form a 90 degree angle.

Young bark on Fire Dragon® can have a purplish tone and eventually turns grayish brown, while older bark is two-toned brown, heavily fissured, and very attractive. Shantung maple branches are flexible but old wood is dense and very hard, much like an oak, and according to a Kansas State University study they were the least damaged/best performing in ice storms, and are similarly good for windy sites. 

Fire Dragon® Shantung Maple has a very efficient, non-aggressive root system that is reminiscent of a Japanese maple. Shantung is a preferred maple for under-planting in park and landscape settings because it is not shallow-rooted like some notorious maples, so the roots do not over-compete. In addition, the canopy provides open shade, perfect for an understory of rhododendrons, native azaleas and other ornamental shrubs, perennials and groundcovers. 

Acer truncatum is a very lovely medium-sized maple tree reaching up to 35 feet in height and spread. Growth habit is low-branching, round-headed, quite dense and uniform. It is a hardy, adaptable species, tolerant of heat and drought, with no serious pests. This tree is tougher than and just as beautiful as any maple growing “back east”. Hardy and heat tolerant, it grows on both acidic and alkaline soils. Shantung maples are in high demand in the lower Midwest and are gaining popularity throughout the upper-Midwest and upper-South to the east coast.

Fire Dragon® tolerates pollution and fits most urban landscapes. About the only thing it will not tolerate is poor drainage. With a vigorous growth rate, Fire Dragon® Shantung Maples grow 2 to 5 feet per year. This very lovely maple has application as a street or residential shade tree.
Statistics Chart for Fire Dragon® Shantung Maple,  Acer truncatum Fire Dragon®  Plant Patent #17367, by Keith Johansson, owner of Metro Maples who patented this cultivar.
Plant Category:
Shade tree, budded cultivar, patented
Mature Height:
Mid-sized, reaches 35 feet
Mature Spread:
 35 feet
Mature Form:
Round crown
 Low branching  with graceful curves; wood is exceptionally strong and resists ice and wind
Growth Rate:
Vigorous, 2-5 feet per year
Sun Exposure:
Full sun (recommended)  to part shade
Soil Type:
Loam, Sand, Clay
Soil Moisture:
Well-drained soils; good with heat and drought; will not tolerate wet soils
Flower Color:
Lemony, greenish yellow corymbs of small flowers; excellent early nectar source for honey bees
Bloom Season:
 March - April
Spring: burnt orange to pink and rose-red, and then to bright red when growing vigorously in May.
Summer leaf color: a pleasing, sparkling green on thick, waxy leaves; lowered transpiration rates help trees manage the hot summers; new growth put on by this cultivar during the summer is typically a dark red throughout the season
Leaf drop is sudden and efficient; leaves compost quickly
Fall Color:
brilliant, true cardinal red; sometimes currant red with Chinese yellow margins; and occasionally reddish-orange after heavy rainfall
Purplish, 90 degree angle winged samaras or “helicopters”  
 Attractive, two-toned, dark gray to brown, thick, fissured
Regular root system, not a shallow-rooted maple; non-competing and excellent for under plantings
pH Level:
 5 – 8, very adaptable
6– 9, wide range
U.S., Keith Johansson, owner of Metro Maples, Fort Worth, TX  

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