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Why do Japanese Maples and Ornamental Conifers cost so much?

By Neil Peterson

Last Updated May 10, 2012 11:40:25 AM

There are some things in life which are almost universally accepted as aesthetic. More often than not, we find the beauty of nature to be objective. That is to say a piece of architecture or art  is open to interpretation, a mountain or forest-much less so. This is a sliding perspective which applies from  minute intricacies (like the grain of wood) to the seeming endlessness of the oceans. Somewhere in this "innate accepted beauty" fit specific plants. Amongst these plants are the Japanese Maples and a select other few.

I've been a "plant person" all my life. I've argued for and against the merits of many plants, but have never once needed to convince a person of the grace presented by a 'Tsumi Gaki'  (http://davesgarden.com/guides/pf/showimage/135882/) or Tricolor Beech (http://www.donnan.com/images/Tricolor-Beech.jpg)

So why are these plants so expensive? Simple- the time/value of money. Japanese Maples, and in fact many highly regarded woody plants,  require an extra level of production called grafting. Growing seedlings from the parent plants will sometimes yield progeny that resemble the parents, but will often have considerably more muted characteristics.  The solution to this is basically a tissue transplant.

Grafting removes a piece of above ground  tissue from the wanted plant and combines it with a different plant's  root system . This plant which donates it's roots is called the "understock", the piece of branch which grows into the new tree is called the "scion". Grafting is a very old practice, dating back to the Romans, because it's the only means by which to guarantee a group of plants which are genetically identical (Apples are all grafted for example).

The grafting process is expensive. It's done in the middle of winter in a heated greenhouse (you think your gas bill is bad) and can be pretty time consuming.  The plants which are achieved through grafting need another two years of care in containers before they're large enough to be planted in the field. Many trees need a regular amount of staking and pruning to keep well-formed.  All that extra labor and care translates into bigger dollar signs. The financial trade-off lies with the end product; a jewel in the landscape.  

Neil