Acer palmatum is the technical name for the Japanese maple. A Swedish botanist named it in the 18th century after the hand-like shape of its leaves. Most maples’ leaves are hand-like: Canadian sugar maples (of the flag and the syrup) have broad palms flatly spread. The Acer palmatum, however, has small dainty palms with tiny tapered fingers curling like a child’s hand (the Japanese had already variously named it after the hands of babies and even frogs). And they seem especially alive, these little maple-hands, lifting and shifting and shyly beckoning.
But what do they offer? The fruit of this palm-maple is “a pair of winged samaras,” each holding one seed. A samara? “A samara is a winged achene,” a flat papery thing, shaped to allow the wind to carry the seed far from its parent tree.
“A samara is sometimes called a key,” (wikipedia continues) “and is often referred to as a wingnut, helicopter, whirlibird…” And they do travel. I was always picking up green sugar and silver maple keys as they parachuted around the sidewalks when I lived in Montreal. Their fine veined forms intrigued me. I collected them superstitiously, as if they might actually unlock something: open something, lighten something, transport me through a new sky. You’d find them in all sorts of places, birled around by the warm breezes, often with no maple tree in sight.
The little red keys, achenes, samaras of this Japanese maple are so much more delicate though. They could take off on the faintest breath of wind. Indeed, I plucked one from this tree in this garden last spring and carried it with me until I flew to Japan in the autumn and let the seed fall. The seed itself wasn’t so old but the dream was, long-carried and finally coming to fruition, as maybe a wee many-handed maple is now, in the wooded grounds of an old Shinto shrine somewhere in deepest Tokyo…
Bryngarw Country Park, Glamorgan, South Wales
9th June 2015