Let’s have a straight talk about Japanese Maples and Sex because . . . Somebody asked.
Actually her question was, if Japanese maples are so easy to grow from seed, and they are, why do they have to be grafted? That’s a really smart question.
In a nutshell, what I am about to explain is this. When it comes to plants there are two kinds of sex.
Sexual Reproduction and Asexual Reproduction.
It takes Sexual Reproduction for new plant varieties to be found. These off spring are called “chance seedlings”.
It takes Asexual Reproduction to perpetually reproduce those beautiful and unique chance seedlings.
Growing plants is a lot like making babies and almost as much fun. (sorry, couldn’t resist). That’s why I always say that Growing and Selling Small Plants is the Most Fun You can have with Your Bibs on!
Baby making is obviously sexual reproduction and part of the wonder, joy and excitement of making babies is the anticipation of who this baby will be. Will the baby be male or female? Black hair, or red hair like daddy? What kind of a personality will the baby have? Human beings are unique. Each and every one of us is just a little bit different.
Plants are no different. When we grow plants from seed we never know for sure what we are going to get. Plant seedlings, like human beings, are unique. Each and everyone is different. This is both good and bad. But that’s how new plants are discovered or developed. Nursery stock producers who grow plants from seed sow tens of thousands of seeds all at the same time. As the seedlings grow and develop the grower watches over his crop to make sure all of the plants are growing as they should be. But he or she is always on the look out for that one seedling that doesn’t look or act like the rest.
That odd ball seedling could be Big Name Plant to hit the market.
In other words, most new plant introductions are chance seedlings that just acted and looked differently. A good example of that is the Lavender Twist Redbud tree that was discovered and developed by my friend Tim Brotzman.
Some growers do all kinds of things in the way of cross pollination in an attempt to control or direct the development of new plants, but many are nothing more than chance seedlings that had special and desirable characteristics.
So now let’s adapt this to Japanese Maples.
When you grow a Japanese maple from seed that is sexual reproduction. The way nature intended for it to happen. Let’s say that you collect 1,000 seeds from a Japanese maple tree that has nice red leaves that hold that deep red color all summer long. The seedlings that you grow from that tree will be Japanese maples for sure. No doubt about that. But they won’t all look or act like the parent plant. Some will have red leaves, some will have redish leaves, some will have green leaves. In other words, you will not get an exact clone of the parent plant.
Cloning Japanese Maple Trees via Asexual Reproduction.
In order to get an exact clone of the Japanese maple tree that you have, you have to use a form of asexual reproduction. Asexual reproduction is when you take tissue from the parent plant and either get that tissue to form roots, or you attach it to a seedling that already has roots. The tissue that you remove from the parent plant contains all of the DNA of the parent plant. If you are successful in your attempts to reproduce that plant, you will for all intents and purposes have a clone that is an exact match to the parent plant. It may not grow in the same shape as the parent plant since the shape of a plant is often controlled by the grower, or the environmental conditions in which the plant is growing. Sun, shade etc.
There are different forms of asexual reproduction of plants, the most popular being rooting cuttings, grafting, budding and tissue culture. Rooting cuttings is by far the most popular for most plants because it’s quick and easy. But it rarely works well for Japanese maple trees. Which is why most Japanese maple trees are budded or grafted.
Budding is when you take a single bud from a plant, slip that bud under the bark of a seedling. The bud attaches itself to the parent plant and at the beginning of the following growing season the grower clips off the top of the seedling right above the bud union. The bud develops into a branch that is trained to grow upright and serve as the stem for the desired tree.
Japanese maples can be budded but it’s tricky, so most growers graft them. Grafting is the process of removing a scion (scion is a fancy word for a cutting) and grafting that scion to a seedling. The scion attaches itself to the seedling, making a permanent bond and a new plant is formed. More about grafting with photos here.
Growing plants via tissue culture is like making test tube babies. Except with plants you are actually starting with a smidgen of tissue that contains the exact DNA of the plant that you are trying to reproduce. Growing via tissue culture is an amazing thing and the plants that are produced can be just as amazing. But it’s really high tech and done in a laboratory. The plants that are produce are really, really tiny so they need special care before they can be moved into a nursery environment.
So when you think of Japanese Maples, there are Many, Many Different Varieties that are very different, but each one is unique and beautiful. So when you see one of these beautiful trees you want one that looks exactly like the one you fell in love with. In order to get that, you have to use a method of asexual reproduction in order to guarantee you’ll get what you want. In the link that I just posted those are all plants from my personal collection with the exception of just one I think.
And that concludes our Sex Ed Class for plants.
Questions, comments or concerns? Post them below!