Charlie Morgan of Mukilteo has collected hundreds of Japanese maples for their variety of colors and shapes, and now sells them to others who appreciate the structure and grace they add to gardens.

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photographed by John Lok

CHARLIE MORGAN is possessed by Japanese maples. An architect by profession, his passion is collecting. Long before most of us had heard of eBay, Morgan bought and sold turn-of-the-century ceramics. He used his eBay profits to help buy a home in Mukilteo, and it was landscaping his new place that kicked his interest into high gear.

When a private collection of mature Japanese maples came up for sale in Olympia three years ago, Morgan jumped at the chance to buy large, well-shaped trees. “I spent about $15,000 on 35 trees,” he says. “Then I went back and bought a hundred more.” It took three semi-trucks to deliver all Morgan’s new maples.

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Soon enough he was buying and selling Japanese maples on Craigslist, sometimes going out and digging up trees for sale in private gardens. Now his house is barely visible beneath the leafy branches of more than 600 Japanese maples growing lustily in pots and big wooden boxes. This is maple-tree heaven, and Morgan gets his exercise moving his inventory around on a wheeled dolly.

What is so alluring about Japanese maples? “There are thousands of varieties!” Morgan enthuses. “I have some that are so rare, there are only a few in existence.” He also appreciates that the trees are easy to care for and able to live in containers forever. They need watering every day, which is taken care of by a drip line into each pot. Good drainage is key, too, so Morgan uses potting soil loaded with bark and vermiculite.

What about pruning? “That’s my hobby,” says Morgan with satisfaction. “You want to open up the trees so you can look through and see the full spectrum of colors.” But he cautions against heavy pruning in autumn, when trees are drought-stressed.

Morgan admits that Japanese maples can be touchy about transplanting, so it’s best to move the trees when they’re leafless and dormant. “But if you dig a big enough hole and water them enough you can transplant pretty much anytime,” he adds.

Morgan walks through his personal forest, pointing out cascading forms, tiny dwarfs and an oddity called ‘Fairy Hairs’ with foliage so gauzy you can hardly see it. Some leaves are finely dissected, others are boldly lobed or slightly scalloped. Leaves come in a range of colors including pink, white, salmon, cream, chartreuse, gold and every shade of red. “Everyone thinks of maples in autumn, but the foliage is most dramatic in springtime, then it keeps changing color through the seasons,” says Morgan.

Surprisingly, he recommends buying Japanese maples during winter when leaves have fallen to reveal shape and structure. That’s what he did with those first fateful hundred trees, and he hasn’t slowed down since.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “A Pattern Garden.” Check out her blog at John Lok is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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