How to Grow Red Dragon Japanese Maple

Compact laceleaf maple with stunning red color all season long

Red dragon Japanese maple tree branches with dark red feathery leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Of the three Japanese maple leaf types—red, green, or variegated—red Japanese maples are the most common, and, for good reason, also the most popular. Their colorful foliage makes them a focal point in every landscape. Of the many varieties of Japanese red maples, the compact, slow-growing cultivar ‘Red Dragon’, which was bred in New Zealand, is ideal for small yards, near a patio, or in a rock garden. It is also well suited to being grown in a container.

The Red Dragon Japanese maple is a variety with dissected leaves that are deeply cut, feathery, and fern-like, hence the common name “laceleaf maple”. With its low height, weeping branches, and spreading habit, it looks more like a shrub than a tree.

What makes this Japanese red maple stand out is its continuous red color during the entire growing season. It starts with bright red, cherry-colored leaves in the spring that become darker over the summer and turn scarlet in the fall. After the tree has dropped its leaves, it is still an eye-catcher with its twisted trunk that becomes gnarlier as the tree matures.

Botanical Name Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Red Dragon'
Common Name Red Dragon Japanese maple, laceleaf maple, laceleaf weeping maple
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size Ten feet height, ten feet width
Sun Exposure Dappled to part shade
Soil Type Loamy
Soil pH 6.2 to 6.5
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Inconspicuous
Hardiness Zones 5-8, USA
Native Area Korea, China

Red Dragon Japanese Maple Care

You might have admired mature Japanese red maples with their branches cascading to the ground. Be aware, however, that it takes many years for the tree to look like that. This is not to say that a young Red Dragon Japanese maple is not attractive, as the foliage is just as stunning no matter what the tree’s age.

Red Dragon Japanese maple is a slow grower and not pruning it and letting nature takes its course is part of the charm.

When planting, the roots need to be spread out to discourage the circular growth habit. Aim the roots outwards so they do not strangle themselves, which is common in many maples.

If you have a black walnut tree in your yard, you can plant a Red Dragon Japanese maple without concerns because Japanese maples are tolerant of black walnuts. 

Red dragon Japanese maple tree next to white boulders and bright green bush

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Red dragon Japanese maple tree branch with deeply cut and feathery red leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Red dragon Japanese maple tree with dark red feathery leaves on weeping branches

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

It is best to plant Red Dragon Japanese maple where it gets morning sun and afternoon shade.

A location where it is protected from the midday sun by a fence or a building is a good option. Another option is to plant it as an understory tree, so it grows in the dappled shade of a large deciduous tree with an open canopy.

The leaves of the laceleaf maples are very thin and delicate and too much hot, direct sun will scorch them.

Soil

The soil needs to be evenly moist, well-drained, and rich in organic matter. Japanese maple does best in soil that is slightly acidic. If your garden soil is alkaline (measure your pH if you are unsure), add chelated iron to the soil once a year, which you can find at garden centers.

Water

After planting the tree, water it regularly for the first two growing seasons, until it is established.

Red Dragon Japanese maple, like all maples, has shallow roots, so, unlike other trees, their roots won’t reach deep into the soil to get water. It also means that the roots are exposed to the elements and dry out quickly. Therefore it is important to mulch around the tree to retain the moisture, and water the tree during dry spells.

Temperature and Humidity

Red Dragon Japanese maple can withstand moderate humidity, but the tree does not do well in hot weather above 90 degrees F. Hot dry wind can be especially damaging to the tender leaves and scorch them.

Similarly, in windy locations, the tree can suffer winter damage from chilly gusts, so pick a spot that offers protection.

The tree tends to leaf out early, which, in the event of a late frost, can also damage the young leaves. 

Fertilizer

When planted in rich soil with plenty of organic matter, Red Dragon Japanese maple does not need a lot of fertilizer. If the soil needs a nutrient boost, in late winter or early spring, apply slow-release or controlled-release fertilizer pellets.

Do not use liquid fertilizer because it will make the tree grow too much foliage too fast, which is counter to its nature, and that can lead to breakage. A fertilizer that is high in nitrogen is not good for the same reason. 

Growing in Containers

Because Red Dragon Japanese maple is a very compact tree and grows so slowly, you can plant it in a large planter or as a bonsai. When growing it in a container, the caution about too much sun and heat applies even more. Like all container plants, it will need more frequent watering.

Common Pests/Diseases

Red Dragon Japanese maple is susceptible to several diseases, such as stem canker, leaf spots, fusarium wilt, and verticillium wilt, botrytis, anthracnose, and root rot. Common pests are aphids, scales, borers, and root weevils.