Growing and Caring for Japanese MaplesNothing beats Japanese maples for center of attention drama and vivid fall color
Japanese maple trees can provide a striking focal point, be the perfect plant to set off a large container, or grow into an impressive bonsai specimen. There are hundreds of Japanese maple varieties that come in various sizes with a large assortment of leaf shapes and colors that range from shades of green to orange, red, purple, and variegated.
Generally, zones 5-8. Heat is a consideration, especially in the south, not necessarily for the health of the maple but for its effect on leaf color, causing many purple or red-leaved varieties to “go green” in the summer. They typically leaf out early in the season and a late cold snap can cause serious damage even to mature specimens.
Varieties from 8 to 30 feet tall and wide.
Providing the right amount of light can be a balancing act. Too much light can damage delicate leaves. Too little light, and some of the more colorful varieties will take on a greenish tone — still attractive, but not the brilliant fall color of reds and purples as would be expected. For best color, most maples need a location with part day's sun or at least high light.
Famous for their phenomenal fall colors, Japanese maples also present purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and greens as well as variegation throughout the growing season.
Most Japanese maples grow at a slow to moderate rate of 1 to 2 feet per year. They typically grow fastest when they are young and slow down as they reach maturity. Planting them in a spot where they are happy and caring for them well helps maximize their growth rate. If you want an established look right from the start, you can opt to plant an older, larger maple rather than a young one that may take years to mature. If this isn’t an option, select a cultivar that has a reputation for being a faster-than-average grower, such as Acer palmatum ‘Beni otake’.
Japanese maples offer plenty of diversity. Compare the different types of Japanese maples here.
When to plant:
Fall is an excellent time to plant because it allows the roots of your Japanese maple to get established while the rest of the tree is dormant. However, many gardeners also find success planting in the spring. Either way, make sure there is no threat of frost which can damage a newly planted tree.
Japanese maples prefer to be in locations protected from strong winds and spring frosts.
Japanese maples are fairly adaptive, but prefer moist, well-drained, slightly acidic soils that contain organic matter. If you live in an area with heavy clay soil, planting them slightly elevated is beneficial; this will help guard against root rot and disease. Chlorosis (yellowing of leaves due to lack of chlorophyll) may occur in high pH soils.
Many of the smaller varieties are excellent in containers. Japanese maples “self stunt,” meaning their top growth will decrease when their roots are confined. When planting in a container, it is still wise to focus on small to medium varieties or dwarf forms.
The compact form of this dwarf variety and its unique arrangement of leaves, which are layered like roof shingles, make Acer palmatum ‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’ an excellent choice for growing in a pot and a top pick of bonsai enthusiasts. Zones 5-8. Photo by: Richard Bloom.
Water them well at planting time and regularly thereafter. Although they can endure periodic dry spells once established, you will want to avoid moisture extremes and water regularly during extreme drought. Maples like mulch to protect their roots from heat and cold, as well as reduce the frequency of watering, especially for those in containers. Keep mulch several inches away from the trunk.
Low nitrogen fertilizer is fine in spring (N-15 or lower), but don’t apply after May, as this could impede fall color & winter toughness. It is best to wait to fertilize newly planted Japanese maples until their second growing season.
As a rule, Japanese maples don’t require regular pruning and will create their own naturally beautiful shape. However, if you want to create an airy look, thin out branches over time; to create a canopy, remove lower limbs. Japanese maples are an exception to the common pruning times of fall and winter because of the sap that will ooze from the cuts in those seasons; this can lead to disease and a weakened tree. The best time for pruning is July-August when sap won’t ooze from the branches. Because many Japanese maples are grafted, any shoots that grow from the base of the plant should be removed as these can become stronger than the grafted section and overtake it.
Problems, Diseases, Pests:
For the most part, Japanese maples don’t suffer from any serious insect or disease problems. They can be susceptible to stem canker, leaf spots, fusarium, verticillium wilt, botrytis, anthracnose, and root rot. Mites can be troublesome, and other pests may include aphids, scale, borers, and root weevils.
More care information here: Japanese Maple Care
JAPANESE MAPLE DESIGN IDEAS
Japanese maples can stand alone as a single spectacular centerpiece, focal point, or accent, as well as work together to provide a dramatic backdrop. They play well with others, particularly plants with similar light and water needs. Perennials and ground covers planted around them can add additional color to the area as well as provide an area of protection to the trunk from mower and weed-eater injury.
Good companion plants for Japanese maples:
- Dawn redwoods
- Rhododendrons and azaleas
Tip: Japanese maples can be limbed up to reveal their sculptural branching and allow easy views of nearby plantings.
JAPANESE MAPLE PICTURES
Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ - buy now from Nature Hills Nursery
This cultivar grows into a small, rounded, deciduous tree, typically 15-20 feet tall. It features purple-red flowers in spring, deep red-purple summer foliage, red samaras (dry fruit) in late summer, and good red-to-crimson fall color. It may also be grown as a multi-stemmed shrub.
Acer palmatum ‘Crimson Queen’
One of the most popular cultivars of Acer palmatum among gardeners, acclaimed for retaining its burgundy-red color throughout the growing season, though in the heat of the South it can sometimes go a bit green. In autumn, the ferny leaves turn bright orange-red before falling to the ground in a brilliant carpet. A mature specimen has a dramatic cascading form, making it a showpiece in the garden. Leaf tips can scorch easily, so this maple needs some shade. Can reach 8-10 feet tall and 12 feet wide.
Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum Atropurpureum’
This well-known variety forms a graceful, mounding scrim of lacy foliage which drapes to the ground from an architectural armature of twisted branches. Slow growing enough to use as a dramatic specimen in a large container. Leaves are purplish red, turning a fiery burnt orange in the fall. Typically reaches 8-12 feet tall and 8-12 feet wide.
Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’
The cultivar name ‘Sango kaku’ means “sea coral tower,” referring to the extraordinary pinkish- red bark of this vase-shaped tree, commonly called coral bark Japanese maple. All Japanese maples are interesting year round, but this one is particularly so. Its radiant stem color intensifies with winter sunshine; in spring it grows pink new stems and pink-tipped yellow-green leaves. The bark and leaves recede to a subdued color in summer, and fall foliage is yellow-gold. Reaches 20 feet by 15 feet or more over 10 years in the landscape; around 10 feet by 5 feet in a container.
Acer palmatum ‘Suminagashi’
Airy and upright, ‘Sumi nagashi’, known as “lion’s mane,” turns several shades of red through the season, starting red-purple in spring, morphing to deep maroon in summer, and blazing crimson in fall. For supreme color, provide afternoon shade. Reaches 10 to 15 feet tall and wide over 10 years in the landscape; around 8 feet by 5 feet in a container.
Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Lemon Chiffon’
Another dainty dissectum, the leaves of ‘Lemon Chiffon’ emerge light green with yellow highlights, slowly darkening in summer to create a two-tone effect. Fall color ranges from yellow to orange. A graceful bantam tree for small spaces and high texture, it reaches 3 to 4 feet tall by 4 to 5 feet wide in 10 years in the landscape; about 3 feet by 3 feet in a container.
Acer palmatum ‘Beni otake’
With its strappy burgundy leaves arranged in tiers, ‘Beni otake’, which roughly translates to “red bamboo,” is perfectly named. In the linearilobum group of Japanese maples, this fast-growing tree holds its color well if given plenty of sun. Vigorous and upright. Reaches around 10 to 12 feet by 6 to 8 feet over 10 years in the landscape; about 9 feet by 5 feet in a container.
Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’
This compact, shrubby tree has curled and crinkled leaves that cluster in tufts along the stems. Green in spring and summer, the foliage turns gold with rose and crimson tones in fall. Slowly reaches about 7 to 15 feet by 5 to 12 feet over 10 years in the landscape; about 5 feet by 4 feet in a container.
Acer palmatum ‘Butterfly’
An elegant variegated maple ideal for small gardens and up-close viewing, ‘Butterfly’ displays leaves of gray-green and creamy white touched with pink. In fall the white parts change to vivid magenta. Grows slowly, reaching 7 to 12 feet by 4 to 8 feet over 10 years in the landscape; about 6 feet by 4 feet in a container.
Acer japonicum ‘Green Cascade’
This compact domed tree with pendulous branches has rich green leaves that explode in yellow, orange, and red in autumn. Perfect for pocket gardens and containers, it reaches 4 to 5 feet tall by 6 to 8 feet wide over 10 years in the landscape; about 4 feet by 5 feet in a container.
Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’
This spreading tree is green through most of the growing season, then the deeply dissected leaves become a kaleidoscope of red, yellow, orange, and purple. Reaches 20 feet tall and 15 feet wide in 10 years in the landscape; about 12 feet by 8 feet in a container.
Acer japonicum ‘Tsukushigata’
This tree is known for its lustrous dark-purplish foliage that turns scarlet red in the fall. Bright green veining adds highlights and chartreuse seed pods twinkle among the dark leaves. A mid-size maple, it grows to about 10 feet tall and almost as wide. Named for a bay on the island of Kyushu.
Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’
The chartreuse leaves of Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, or golden full-moon maple, are more rounded and less deeply lobed than most. Growing in a shady setting encourages the bright yellow-green color; in summer tufts of reddish purple flowers morph into crimson samaras. Fall color is orange-red, sometimes with purple highlights. Reaches approximately 8 feet by 7 feet in 10 years in the landscape; about 6 feet by 4 feet in a container.
Acer shirasawanum ‘Autumn Moon’ - buy now from Spring Hill Nurseries
Opening pinkish orange with chartreuse undertones in spring, summer adds orange and salmon to the mix, finishing with orange and red in autumn. Vigorous, hardy, and heat tolerant. Reaches 8 feet tall and wide over 10 years in the landscape; about 6 feet by 4 feet in a container.
JAPANESE MAPLE SOURCES
Japanese maple trees can be ordered online from the following retailers:
With the many (hundreds!) of varieties of Japanese maples, the choices are nearly limitless. It seems each one has its own unique character, adding multi-season interest with dramatic transformations throughout the year. If your landscape needs a little pick-me-up, a Japanese maple might just do the trick.
Editor's Note: This article was adapted from its original version for use on the web.