"I shall think of you in a floating cloud;
So in the sunset think of me."
Acer palmatum 'Ukigumo' is perhaps the most extreme of the variegated Japanese maples. The leaves are sometimes nearly all-white, with merest flecks of green; elsetimes possessing much more green with extravagant white markings with (especially in early spring) pink tips & highlights.
An extremely young sapling is usually greenleafed without much variegation, but soon after its third year it will become variegated with a vengeance.
The ten year height of this small tree can be usually a scant feet, though it might in the very long run reach fifteen feet. It can be multi-trunked & rather wide-limbed, hence more of a shrub than a tree, although this depends greatly on how it is trained, since a young developing specimen can be trained with as many or as few trunks as the gardener decides.
Our slender six-foot specimen's May leaves are predominantly white with pink tips & highlights. The pink fades & the minor green flecking of the spring leaves becomes stronger as the leaves harden, but the overall leaf appearance remains white.
Planted against a dark background of deep green foliage, the white leaves of 'Ukigumo' lends it all of the impact of a flowering tree, but unlike flowers which are transient, the leaves lend their glow to the garden spring through autumn. It is important not to plant it where it is viewed against a whitewashed wall or bright background, as its whiteness tends to diminish its impact when viewed against white.
It is very easy for a garden book about maples, or a nursery catalog, to suggest again & again that 'Ukigumo,' meaning 'Floating Cloud,' alludes only to this maple's white leaves with pink glow as simulating a cloud. But a floating cloud is not just an allusion to a literal cloud, but to something symbolically greater; it is a phrase that encapsulates a Buddhist & Taoist sentiment that is simultaneously cosmic & meditative, reflective & introspective.
Floating Cloud or Ukigumo is Foo Yun in Chinese, embodying a philosophical point of view. As a cloud comes into existence then disappears, so too is life a floating cloud which becomes death. The mind, too, has thoughts that are like floating clouds that form & unform. Our very flesh is a floating cloud that grows from nothing into something then falls back into the void.
Before the beginning we did not exist, then we existed, & finally we become as we were before. If we are quiet within, we can experience the whole of this circle of existence & non-existence as a continuum, as though we are the empty space inside a closed circle, & not merely physical beings each with a specific beginning that proceeds in a straight line toward finality.
A floating cloud is anything, such as life's crises & delightful surprises, that appear as from out of nowhere, & run their course whether pleasant or unpleasant. To see beyond the floating cloud of existence, beyond the body's pleasures & pains, is to see beyond illusion to the true heart of reality.
Such is the intention of a Zen practioner on the road to nirvana, difficult though it is to not be distracted by the rewards & travails that continuously appear & vanish.
The floating cloud is also the abode of the gods of the Tao. Their Kingdom of Clouds is a mountainous retreat instantly perceivable as a divine residence, with sheer cliffs obscured by mist & cascading rivers & waterfalls that tumble into ancient forests.
The floating cloud as Chinese Eden embodies all of Nature as a reflection of a wholesome paradise so near to one's vision that it seems as though we might reach out with an open hand & grasp the white mist & bright dawn, even though our hands cannot clutch light & mist, & the vision is only a painted screen or a dream. And it is only by never grasping can that such a paradise will prevail.
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