This is the Garden Column for use during the week beginning July 24.
By Jeff Iles
Department of Horticulture
Iowa State University
Have you ever considered the plight of landscape plants blessed/cursed with yellow foliage? Are they at all self-conscious of their appearance or do they display their leaves proudly and unashamedly? I mean, it’s pretty difficult to blend into the background when your leaves are screaming, “look at me!”
And imagine the sarcastic questions, insensitive jabs and snide comments from neighboring woody plants. “Hey, Mr. Yellow Leaves, are you sick or something?” “What’s the matter, can’t handle our soil pH?” “Looks like somebody got up on the wrong side of the fertilizer spreader.” Or, “Yo, chlorotic boy, would you mind turning your leaves off. We’re trying to sleep over here!” But all of the barbs and insults would be worth it, or at least they’d be tolerable if you were a 'Princeton Gold' Norway maple. Now there’s a tree that seems very comfortable in its own skin.
Acer platanoides 'Princeton Gold' (Norway maple) was introduced to the nursery and landscape trade in 1987 by the legendary William Flemer III of Princeton Nurseries, Princeton, N.J. Apparently Bill was in the right place at the right time, and on one of his trips through the propagation house, spied an unusual, yellow-leaved Norway maple seedling growing amongst a sea of green-leaved seedlings, and the rest, as they say, is history.
'Princeton Gold' Norway maple develops a pleasing oval crown, and is predicted to grow approximately 35 feet tall and 30 feet wide. But it’s the eye-popping, grab you by the shirt collar, fluorescent yellow foliage that has everyone talking. In fact, the early spring foliage is so bright you can spot a tree from miles away. Even the slightly toned-down, yellowish-green summer foliage easily commands your attention in a mostly green landscape.
Does 'Princeton Gold' have any significant problems? Well, it’s not the fastest growing of trees, but as you know, a deliberate growth rate often is a good thing. I’ve also noticed some leaf scorch (yellow leaves seem to invite this kind of damage). To reduce the risk of scorch, situate 'Princeton Gold' where it will receive protection from the hot, afternoon sun. Examples of preferable sites include eastern or northern exposures, courtyards or places that receive filtered shade.
So, how do you use a big, yellow-leaved shade tree in the landscape? As with most decisions of this kind, it really is a matter of taste. Personally, I don’t know if I could stomach an entire street lined with 'Princeton Gold'. At first, it might be kind of fun, kind of like wearing yellow pants to work. But after a while, the novelty would wear off. No, instead I think 'Princeton Gold' is the perfect accent plant. Use a lone specimen to jazz up the city park, a grouping of three or five along a golf course fairway to give the golfers something else to complain about, or sprinkle them through a new housing development just to make things interesting.
Now folks, before I close, I must issue a word of caution. Once you start using yellow-leaved plants in the landscape, you might find it difficult to stop. But never fear, there are plenty of great landscape plant choices to experiment with. A few of my favorites are listed below:
Golden Nugget™ barberry
Sunjoy™ Gold Pillar barberry
Tiger Eyes™ cutleaf sumac
'Golden Elf' spirea