How to Grow Japanese Maple Bonsai

Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) bonsai tree with bright red foliage in a shallow brown pot against a white background.

L. Toshio Kishiyama / Getty Images

 

Bonsai is the ancient Japanese art form of growing ornamental miniature or artificially dwarfed trees in containers using cultivation techniques designed to mimic the shape and scale of full-sized trees.

Japanese maples are some of the most extravagant trees for bonsai and are widely popular thanks to their brilliantly colored foliage and ease of care.

Unlike some other bonsai specimens, Japanese maple bonsai are great for beginners and do not require as much care and skill to keep happy.

Another benefit of the Japanese maple bonsai is that it does not require as much sunlight as most other bonsai varieties. The fine, delicate branches are flexible and easy to shape, lending well to the techniques involved in bonsai training.

Botanical Name Acer palmatum Bonsai
Common Name Japanese maple bonsai
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 60-80 inches
Sun Exposure Part sun
Soil Type Well-draining, bonsai soil
Soil pH 5.5 - 6.5
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Red, inconspicuous
Native Area Japan
The bright red foliage of the japanese maple bonsai tree contrasts against its tourquoise pot and pale pink background.
Aleroy4 / Getty Images 

Japanese Maple Bonsai Care

Japanese maple bonsai are relatively easy to care for and make great bonsai for beginners and professionals alike. They are characterized by a moderate growth rate and can be easily trained through regular pruning and wiring.

Wiring a Japanese maple bonsai should be done in the summer months while the tree still has all of its leaves, and the wires should not be left on for more than six months at a time.

In general, Japanese maples respond very well to wiring as their branches are flexible and easily shaped. As always, it’s best to take it slow and not overdo the wiring as you don’t want to damage the tree. 

Light

Japanese maple bonsai do not need as much sunlight as some bonsai specimens do. This makes them perfect for gardeners with partly shady backyards.

They should be protected from the harsh midday rays and do best when positioned in locations that receive morning and evening sun and dappled sun throughout the rest of the day. 

Soil

Japanese maple bonsai require well-draining, nutrient-rich soil with a pH between 5.5 and 6.5 in order to thrive.

Generally, using a commercially available bonsai soil mix is best as they are specially formulated to support the growth of bonsai trees.

Adding a drainage layer of rocks or pebbles to the bottom of the pot will help to prevent waterlogging.

Water

In general, bonsai trees require a significant amount of moisture in order to survive, and Japanese maples are no exception. During the spring and summer months, these trees may need to be watered as often as every day, although they will require significantly less water during the fall and winter months. The soil should be kept evenly moist at all times during the spring and summer, but never waterlogged.

Temperature and Humidity

As with most bonsai trees, Japanese maple bonsai are best suited to outdoor growing and do not grow well indoors.

Although they are native to Japan, they are adaptable to a wide range of climates in North America, Europe, China, and Korea. While they are cold-hardy trees, they can only tolerate short periods of freezing temperatures and should be protected from harsh winter climates.

Fertilizer

Japanese maple bonsai require regular fertilizing to encourage strong and consistent new growth.

During the spring and summer, feed Japanese maple bonsai every other week with an organic bonsai fertilizer or liquid fertilizer. During the fall, switch to a nitrogen-free fertilizer and cut back on the frequency of feeding.

Avoid feeding for several weeks after repotting a Japanese maple bonsai to allow the delicate roots to regrow without the risk of shock.

Varieties of Japanese Maple for Bonsai

There are several varieties of Japanese maple that are suitable for bonsai cultivation and training. The following are some of the most common and popular types for bonsai:

  • Acer palmatum ‘Deshojo’
  • Acer palmatum ‘Arakawa’
  • Acer palmatum ‘Seigen’
  • Acer palmatum ‘Katsura’
  • Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’

Pruning

Regular pruning is essential for the aesthetic and health of a bonsai tree. In the spring and summer, the new shoots should be pinched back on a regular basis to shape the tree and encourage branching. The leaves of Japanese maple bonsai should also be actively pruned throughout the growing season to keep them small and match the shape of the overall tree.

As with most bonsai, any heavy pruning of main branches or stems should be saved for the late fall to winter months. 

Potting and Repotting

Generally, as with most bonsai, the Japanese maple variety does not need to be repotted regularly once it is well-established. However, young trees benefit from yearly repotting to help refresh the soil and prune the rootball. Using bonsai pots will help to achieve the bonsai aesthetic, and restrict the tree’s growth over time.

The best time to repot Japanese maple bonsai is in the spring months just before the buds have opened. This will help to ensure that the tree has adequate time to recover from the repotting before it goes into dormancy in the fall and winter months.

Japanese maple bonsai grow roots quickly and vigorously and will require root pruning at the time of repotting. Cut back up to ⅓ of the roots, starting from the outside and moving inwards. Avoid chopping any large, main roots as you don’t want to disturb the main system.

Common Pests/Diseases

Japanese maple bonsai are susceptible to a few common pests and diseases. Checking the tree regularly for signs of an infestation is the best way to help prevent damage from pests and diseases. In particular, keep an eye out for aphids, verticillium wilt, and powdery mildew