Dig Deep: How to Plant a Japanese Maple

Delicate beauty and vibrant colors make the Japanese maple a coveted choice for landscaping or for containers.
Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

The Japanese maple, like all acers, is grown for its delicate leaves and fall color.

©2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

2008, Dorling Kindersley Limited

The Japanese maple, like all acers, is grown for its delicate leaves and fall color.

The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) as its name suggests, is native to Japan, but has been cultivated in Western cultures since the 1800s. In Japanese, it is known as Momiji. The name translates literally to mean “crimson leaf,” but in the vernacular also means “baby’s hand.” An apt turn of language. Although there are hundreds of varieties, ranging widely in color and size, the  most popular breeds display small, palm-like leaves of striking reds and yellows.

Ranging in size from dwarf varieties reaching no more than three or four feet high to heights of thirty feet, delicate beauty and vibrant colors make the Japanese maple a coveted choice for landscaping or for containers, bringing lush elegance to even the most limited space.

Its splendor isn’t the only thing that makes this tree a winning choice. Despite its tender good looks, this is one hardy tree. Requiring minimal attention once planted, it does well in zones 5 through 8. While it will thrive in low-to-no frost environments, it will survive conditions as low as twenty below zero and the temperature swings of Northern climates draw out the spectacular fall colors associated with this popular ornamental tree.

While fairly easy to cultivate, following a few simple rules and making thoughtful choices when planting will ensure a beautiful and healthy tree suited to nearly any environment.

Selecting a Tree

While it is certainly possible to start from seed, the genetic variance in these trees mean that seeds from the same tree may result in offspring with markedly different characteristics. Propagating from cuttings yields more reliable results.

Buying seedlings that are already establishing themselves is a good way to ensure your tree is best suited to your environmental and aesthetic desires. In addition, planting a tree that has already begun to “leaf out” improves the probability of survival when facing unexpected climate changes.

When to Plant

A subject of some debate. Japanese maples, especially young trees, have some sensitivity to extreme heat and sunlight. So unlike many plants, the summer months may not be the best choice for planting. Planting in very early spring or well into fall suits these trees just fine. But consider your climate. Planting in late fall may be just fine in the South where winter doesn’t arrive with such a fury, but for you Northerners a hard freeze too soon after planting can prove fatal to unestablished trees.

Japanese maples are extremely amenable to transplanting, so if weather extremes are a concern, planting in a container in the fall is a safe choice, allowing the opportunity to move your tree into the garage if conditions become too extreme.

Where to Plant

For small or developing trees, starting in a container is an easy way to gauge where they may do well without committing to the ground. Plastic containers that are not impacted by changes in temperature are recommended.

The two biggest concerns when planting the Japanese maple are sunlight and water. A little bit of each is important, but too much can spell disaster.

Look for areas that are partially shaded or receive direct sunlight for only part of the day. Full sunlight doesn’t necessarily kill these trees, but the leaves are easily damaged by excessive sunlight.

The greatest risk to the health of the Japanese maple is excessive water. Select areas where the soil drains well. Standing water or excessive moisture is a killer.


Less is more. Unless drought conditions are reached, minimal watering should be needed. Trees under two or three years of age may require occasional watering. Adult trees can withstand long periods without water.

Fertilizer can also be used sparingly, although the tree will benefit from a layer of mulch to help regulate root temperature.

Unless you are concerned with beautification or space constraints, pruning is only necessary for the removal of dead or damaged branches.

With little effort and a little planning, an established Japanese maple can add vibrancy and style to any landscape.

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