A Twin Cities landscaper was in a client’s yard in Eden Prairie in 2002 when he noticed a striking plant.
“There was a beautiful Japanese maple, about 4 feet tall and 8 feet wide,” recalled Craig Frick, owner of Superior Lawn & Landscape in St. Bonifacius.
It had the distinctive lacy foliage, in a vivid purplish-red color. “And a trunk the size of my leg. It had obviously been there a long time. I thought, ‘That’s not normal.’ ”
Not normal because most Japanese maples are hardy to Zone 5, which makes them a risky and often short-lived choice in the Twin Cities, which is classified as Zone 4 by the USDA.
Not that some people don’t try to grow the small ornamental tree that induces much zone envy among Minnesota gardeners. Some have had success, usually short-term, trying to create micro climates where Japanese maples can survive for a few growing seasons. Others grow them in large containers that are taken indoors for the winter.
Frick himself had tried to grow Japanese maples in the past.
“I’ve had Emperor 1, the tree form,” he said. “They’ll survive a winter or two, but they don’t last. If people ask for them, I tell them they’re not hardy.” He doesn’t even carry them in his garden center, Superior Outdoor Expressions.
But here was a mature Japanese maple, thriving, in Zone 4 Eden Prairie. It was more shrublike than treelike, with a spreading habit.
Frick alerted Suzette Nordstrom, a former college classmate who works as regional sales rep for plant grower Monrovia, and took her to see the plant. She agreed that the maple appeared to be something special.
“I said, ‘You have to let us work with this,’ ” she recalled “We’re always looking for new cold-hardy plants. It’s fun to find a plant right in our backyard.”
Frick speculates that the Japanese maple in Eden Prairie was a rare mutation.
“Before science, that’s how new plants developed,” he said. “One fluke developed hardiness for our cold.”
He asked the homeowner if he could take some cuttings, and Monrovia began propagating, testing and conducting trials, part of the yearslong process of bringing a new plant to market.
A few years into that process, Monrovia gave Frick three of the Japanese maples, which he planted in his Chaska yard.
“They’re totally hardy,” he said, surviving even the polar vortex winter a few years ago. Two of his Japanese maples have full exposure to the elements — “my guinea pigs,” Frick said — while one is planted in a heat “bubble” close to his house.
All three are thriving. “They didn’t miss a beat,” he said.
The mother plant, the one Frick spotted in Eden Prairie, wasn’t as fortunate. It died about five years ago of a canker, a fungus that attacks the roots, Frick said. “I’m thankful I got the cuttings.”
Now the mother plant’s offspring, Velvet Viking — named for its rich velvety color and, of course, Minnesota’s football team — is finally hitting the market. Frick, who owns the patent, got to name the plant. Monrovia, which owns the growing rights, started with a limited release last summer and a larger release this year.
There’s a lot of pent-up demand for a Japanese maple that can tough it out during extreme northern winters, according to Nordstrom. Velvet Viking fills a void. “It allows us to have Japanese maples here in Minnesota,” she said. “It’s selling like crazy. I get calls every day from someone who wants to buy them.”
Frick quickly sold out his supply at his retail store in St. Bonifacius. It’s also been a strong seller at Bachman’s garden centers, according to Doug Danielsen, director of nursery wholesale.
“It’s proven in Minnesota to do well. That sold me,” said Danielsen. “It has a true Japanese maple look, and great color.”
There are some other similar maples that are hardy to Minnesota, including the Jack Frost series, developed in Oregon, which is a Korean maple hybridized to look like a Japanese maple, said Danielsen. Some turn red in fall.
“Velvet Viking is unique in that it has red foliage year-round.”
Bachman’s currently has some Velvet Vikings in stock, priced at $169 for a No. 5 container, but inventory is limited, Danielsen said. “We’re trying to bring more in.”
Even though Velvet Viking has proved itself hardy enough to withstand Minnesota winters, Frick and Nordstrom still recommend planting it in a somewhat sheltered spot.
“Put them close to the house, in a protected corner. There’s heat coming off the house,” said Frick. “I wouldn’t put them out near the boulevard on a berm.”
It’s best not to plant them in places where they will be completely exposed to the elements, Nordstrom said. “Japanese maples don’t like hot full sun. They like filtered light. They don’t like a lot of wind.”
Velvet Viking can be planted anytime during the summer, although June is ideal, Frick said — “the earlier the better” — to give the plant a chance to get well established by fall.
Water generously, especially in the heat of summer and in fall, Nordstrom said.
And place a thick layer of wood mulch at the base to protect the roots, said Frick.
The plant’s weeping habit lends itself to making a dramatic statement in the garden. “It’s the perfect plant to drape near a waterfall or pond,” Frick said in a news release from Monrovia. “It also looks beautiful over a boulder wall.”
The foliage color ranges from bright purple to deep dark burgundy, turning in fall to bright red or orangish-red.
For companion plants, Frick likes contrasting Velvet Viking’s rich color against lime or chartreuse Coral bells, hot pink astilbe and spreading blue spruce.
One caveat about the new plant: “They’re slow to wake up in spring,” said Nordstrom.
Especially after their first winter, said Frick. “There’s dieback, then they get established and red buds explode.”