Growing Japanese Maples: A Guide to Planting and Care
Delicate beauty and vibrant colors make the Japanese maple a coveted choice for landscaping or for containers.
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 30 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 20 degrees below zero and the temperature swings of Northern climates draw out the spectacular fall colors associated with this popular ornamental tree.
Their colors make Japanese maples stand out. Many put out new growth each spring that practically glows red when backlit by the sun; by summer, those leaves become green, and in autumn, they turn scarlet, gold and orange.
Other leaf colors include plum, bronze, purple, yellow, pink or vivid red. With over 700 cultivars, you'll find a wide variety of leaf shapes and textures, too.
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 Japanese Maple 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.
Gardeners with limited space can plant dwarf varieties or grow the trees in containers to move around for portable color. Some varieties are easily pruned into bonsai plants.
Planting Japanese Maples
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.
How to Plant
Dig a hole three times the width of the root ball, but not as deep. When you put the tree into the hole, it should sit slightly above the soil line. Mix some slow-release fertilizer into the hole, backfill and water thoroughly.
While Japanese maples will grow in most soils, they prefer slightly acidic soil. Avoid planting them in highly alkaline or salty soils. Use a good planting mix for a container.
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.
Japanese maples need soil that drains easily, but they like consistent moisture. Water regularly if rainfall is scarce, especially during the first 3 years of growth, and mulch to help keep moisture in the soil.
Where to Plant
With little effort and a little planning, an established Japanese maple can add vibrancy and style to any landscape.
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.
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.
While Japanese maples are excellent as specimen trees or understory trees grown with azaleas, camellias and other shade-loving plants in woodland settings, they're also fine for planting alongside driveways, walls and fences.
Care for Japanese Maples
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.
Diseases & Pests
Pests that attack Japanese maples include Japanese beetles, mites, scale, aphids and mealybugs. Dislodge them with a strong stream of water from your hose. If they keep coming back, step up to a pesticide that targets your specific problem. Follow product directions.
Canker and verticillium wilt are incurable fungal diseases that can harm Japanese maples. Help prevent them by keeping your tree healthy and watering and fertilizing as needed. Also be careful not to injure the bark by hitting it with a lawn mower or other garden equipment.
Another disease, anthracnose, shows up as black spots on distorted or dying leaves. It often occurs in wet, humid weather, and there's no chemical cure. But you can help prevent this disease, too, by keeping your garden cleared of dead or diseased plant parts and by using only clean, fresh mulch. The good news is that many diseases resolve themselves, so your Japanese maple can recover and grow for many years to come.
Japanese Maple Varieties to Consider
'Red Dragon' Japanese Maple — 'Red Dragon' matures at 7 to 8 feet. Its size, combined with its slow growth habit, make it perfect for containers. 'Red Dragon' features deeply-dissected purple leaves that turn bright apple-red in the fall.
'Crimson Queen' Japanese Maple — 'Crimson Queen' features delicate, weeping foliage and holds its beautiful crimson color throughout summer.
'Orangeola' Japanese Maple — 'Orangeola' is a fast-growing Japanese maple showing off stunning orange leaves in spring and fall. During summer, the leaves fade to hues of red and green.
'Viridis' Japanese Maple — 'Viridis' features bright green, lacey foliage that forms an elegant dome shape over time. It is a beautiful bright-orange in the fall, with golden yellow undertones and crimson highlights, that transitions into bright green throughout the summer. This maple is the most vigorous of the green laceleaf maples.
'Shishigashira' Japanese Maple — 'Shishigashira' features solid green foliage throughout the summer and purple-red foliage with orange hues in fall. It's good for containers or small gardens.
'Shaina' Japanese Maple — 'Shaina' features bright red foliage in the spring that matures to a deep maroon-red in summer. It has a freely branching growth habit that becomes dense with maturity.
'Shirazz' Japanese Maple — During spring, 'Shirazz' delights with bright pink foliage that turns green with creamy pink edges throughout summer. This Japanese maple is in it for the long haul — it can live 60 years or longer.