How to Grow and Care for 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 (Acer palmatum) leaf types—red, green, or variegated—red Japanese maples are the most common and the most popular. The compact, slow-growing ‘Red Dragon’ cultivar was bred in New Zealand and is ideal for small yards, near a patio, or a rock garden. It naturally self-seeds in fall, which is a perfect time for planting, although you can start it anytime indoors. It is also well suited to being grown in a container.

The 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple is a variety with deeply cut, feathery, and fern-like leaves, hence the common name “laceleaf maple." It starts with bright red, cherry-colored leaves in the spring that become darker over the summer and turn scarlet in the fall. Its low height, weeping branches, and spreading habit make it look more like a shrub than a tree. After the tree has dropped its leaves, it is still an eye-catcher with its twisted trunk that becomes gnarlier as the tree matures.

Common Name 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple, laceleaf maple, laceleaf weeping maple
Botanical Name Acer palmatum var. dissectum 'Red Dragon'
Family Sapindaceae
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 10 ft. tall, 10 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Partial
Soil Type Loamy
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Red
Hardiness Zones 5-8 (USDA)
Native Area Asia

Red Dragon Japanese Maple Care

The branches of a fully mature 'Red Dragon' maple cascade to the ground giving it an eye-catching grace and the common name of laceleaf weeping maple. Their colorful foliage makes them focal points in every landscape. Most Japanese maples take eight years or longer to reach full growth. A young 'Red Dragon' is a beautiful specimen plant in the garden with stunning foliage regardless of the tree’s age.

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, a common problem for many maples. 'Red Dragon' Japanese maples are slow growers, so not pruning them and letting nature take its course is part of the charm.

If you have a black walnut tree, it naturally exudes juglone, a herbicide that kills plant competition. Your 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple is more tolerant than most other plants to its toxin; however, juglone may still stunt some plant growth.

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. Its leaves are very thin and delicate; 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 loamy, slightly acidic soil (pH 6.2 to 6.5). If your garden soil is alkaline (measure your pH if you are unsure), add chelated iron to the soil once a year to increase its acidity.

Water

Like all maples, 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple has shallow roots, so they won’t reach deep into the soil to get water. Roots may dry out quickly; mulch around the tree to prevent this and help retain moisture.

Once planted, water it deeply and regularly for the first two growing seasons until it is well established. If the tree gets at least 1 inch of rain per week, it doesn't need supplemental water. Newly planted Japanese maples, however, need at least 10 gallons of water per week released slowly, so it reaches the entire root system. Plan on giving water twice a week during normal weather and three or even four times a week in sweltering weather or drought.

Temperature and Humidity

'Red Dragon' Japanese maple can withstand moderate humidity, but the tree does not do well in hot temperatures above 90 F. Hot dry wind can damage the tender leaves and scorch them. The tree tends to leaf out early, which can also damage the young leaves in the event of a late frost. Similarly, the tree can suffer winter damage from chilly gusts in windy locations, so pick a spot that offers protection. 

Fertilizer

When planted in rich soil with plenty of organic matter, 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple does not need a fertilizer upon planting. Apply slow-release or controlled-release fertilizer pellets if the soil needs a nutrient boost in late winter or early spring. Do not use liquid or nitrogen-heavy fertilizer because it will make the tree grow too much foliage too fast, which is counter to its nature, leading to weak, breaking leaves. If you must fertilize, here's how:

  1. You'll need no more than 1/10 pound nitrogen per 100 square feet (based on the planting hole area).
  2. Make holes about 6 inches deep into the soil around the tree, about halfway between the main trunk and the drip line of the branches.
  3. Divide the fertilizer pellets between the holes.
  4. Fill the rest with soil.
  5. Irrigate well.

Types of Japanese Maples

Japanese maple cultivars are popular for their red foliage, but some have brilliant green or gold tones—and even bicolor leaves. Besides 'Red Dragon,' these are some of the other common Japanese maple types:

  • 'Bloodgood' (Acer palmatum atropurpureum 'Bloodgood'): Maximum size of 20 feet high with a similar spread; reddish-purple leaves in summer, greener in full sun; leaves deepen to crimson red in fall
  • 'Crimson Queen' (Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Queen'): Reaches a height of 8 to 10 feet and a spread of 10 to 12 feet; weeping habit and dissected leaf type; dark-red summer leaves deepen to crimson; fall colors include yellow, red, purple, and bronze
  • 'Full Moon' (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum'): Reaches 16 to 20 feet tall; showy bright yellow foliage, gradually deepens to yellow-green in summer, then turns orange-red in fall
  • Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku'): Grows up to 25 feet tall; deep red bark that provides good winter interest; leaves are yellow-green when they emerge, deepening into yellow-gold by fall
  • 'First Ghost' (Acer palmatum 'First Ghost'): Grows 7 feet tall with a 4-foot spread; creamy white leaves tipped with red and dark green veins; leaves turn green in summer and yellow-orange in fall

Pruning

Any heavy pruning should occur in winter during dormancy. For shaping, prune in late spring once the leaves emerge. Prune to remove dead branches. Also, use clean cuts with disinfected tools between each tree trimmed.

To avoid causing stress or stimulating unsightly growth, never remove more than one-fifth of a Japanese maple’s crown. Also, do not prune a branch that is more than half the diameter of the parent stem, and don’t remove more than a quarter of the foliage of any given branch.

If you are going to “limb up” your tree by pruning the lowest branches, only remove a few limbs at a time. Every cut injures a tree, so only prune a healthy tree that can take some stress.

Propagating Red Dragon Japanese Maple

'Red Dragon' Japanese maple trees propagate most readily from seeds, grafting, and softwood stem cuttings. The best time of year to start cuttings from Japanese maples is mid-spring, about one month after the trees start growing again. The best time of year for grafting is in winter. The best reason to propagate via grafting or stem cutting is you can more reliably grow the plant you expect. Growing from seed is less exact since cross-pollination with other species can occur during fertilization. Here's how they're propagated via stem cuttings or grafting:

To p ropagate from stem cuttings:

  1. Using sharp shears, cut a 6- to 8-inch new growth of softwood stem. It should have hardened slightly. Get a branch that has leaves on the end. Only keep the end leaves; remove the rest.
  2. Plant the cut end down in a rooting soil of equal parts peat moss, coarse sand, and perlite. For increased success with rooting, dip the cut end in rooting hormone.
  3. Moisten with water but don't oversaturate the soil.
  4. Place the cutting in a location that gets bright, indirect light.
  5. Mist it twice a day.
  6. Roots should develop within three to four weeks.

Grafting involves joining the rootstock of a closely related species with the "scion" or upper stock of a cultivar that you're trying to grow. Although grafting is most often best left to tree professionals, you can attempt it yourself. Here's how to do it:

  1. Start with a two-year seedling that you previously started. The trunk must be at least 1/8-inch diameter. You'll need a sharp grafting knife.
  2. Pull the base plant out of dormancy for about a month by putting it in a warmer location.
  3. Cut a splice graft in a long diagonal about an inch long. Take a cutting of the same diameter from the cultivar plant, intending to fit the two together.
  4. Wrap the union with rubber grafting tape and secure the graft with grafting wax.
  5. Place the grafted plant in a place that gets sun but is not too direct. Consider giving shade to prevent scorching the graft.
  6. Recheck the wax in three to five days. You want to maintain a good seal and keep humidity high.
  7. Prune off any growth coming from the rootstock.
  8. Watch for new growth coming from the scion; that's a sign the graft is successful.
  9. Remove the wrapping once the scion develops leaves, preventing girdling.
  10. Plant in the ground after a year of successful growth in the container.

How to Grow Red Dragon Japanese Maple From Seed

If you live in a place with freezing winters, the best time to sow the seeds of 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple trees is in the fall. Soak them for 24 hours in warm water, then plant them about 1/2-inch below the topsoil. You can also plant them outdoors in the spring, but you must either stratify them in the fridge or a cool, dark spot for at least three months.

If you're going to start the seeds indoors, you can begin them anytime. It will require a 90-day stratification process in the refrigerator before you sow them.

The best way to stratify the seeds is to soak them, then put the seed in potting soil. Place the seeded soil in a plastic resealable bag with a few holes for ventilation and put it into the refrigerator. After 90 days or so, the seeds should start to germinate. Plant the sprouting seeds in a container or directly in the ground. When choosing a planting site, pick a spot with some wind protection.

Potting and Repotting Red Dragon Japanese Maple

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

The container should be no more than twice the size of its rootball. It needs good drainage. A terracotta pot works well since Japanese maples do not do well in soggy soil and terracotta wicks away extra moisture. Repot once roots reach the sides and bottom of the pot, generally every couple of years.

Overwintering

If in a container, overwinter potted Japanese maples in a protected spot after foliage drops in the fall. Move the plant to an unheated garage or basement where temperatures remain above freezing (an attached garage works great). No light is needed when the tree is dormant. Keep the soil moderately moist until returning the maple outdoors in the spring.

Typically Japanese maples outdoors can handle temperatures down to -15 F without much trouble; however, a sapling needs some protection from the wind and ice. First, do not fertilize past mid-summer. Second, give the plants a lot of water before the first frost comes, especially if fall has been light on rain. Next, provide a 4-inch pile of mulch around the tree's base, extending just past the drip line.

If your region experiences heavy snow, wrap the tree in burlap for its first three winter seasons to prevent branch breakage from heavy snowfall.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

'Red Dragon' Japanese maple is susceptible to several fungal diseases, such as stem canker, leaf spots, fusarium wilt, verticillium wilt, botrytis, anthracnose, and root rot. Most of these diseases will resolve if the tree gets proper care. However, if the plant is young or deeply affected, these diseases can kill the plant. To prevent these diseases, prune annually, remove dead or dying leaves and twigs, and replace the mulch annually.

Remove any dead or badly damaged leaves and spray the tree with a multipurpose fungicide to treat these fungal infections. Also, provide good ventilation around the tree and avoid overwatering the tree.

The most common pests are Japanese beetles. These leafeaters can defoliate a Japanese maple in no time. Other common pest include aphids, mealybugs, scale bugs, mites, and borers. A strong spray of water can get rid of aphids and mealybugs. However, try organic methods like insecticidal soap or neem oil to eliminate the other bugs. As a last resort, use chemical pesticides.

Common Problems with Red Dragon Japanese Maple

'Red Dragon' Japanese maple trees are easy to grow, but can encounter some problems early in life when they are most susceptible to insects and disease.

Leaf Spots or Leaf Drop

If it's well before fall, and you notice your 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple is losing its leaves or you see leaf spots, it can signify fungal infection like anthracnose or Phyllosticta leaf spot, a bacterial tip blight, or a Japanese beetle infestation. You can spray insecticidal soap and horticultural oil to eliminate the beetles, but the diseases are harder to remedy. In most cases, you will need to destroy your plant to prevent spreading the infections to your other plants.

Leaf Browning or Twigs Dying

The most common cause of leaf browning or twig dying is insufficient water. A water-starved Japanese maple will go downhill quickly. Water heavily to restore its vigor and give water regularly to prevent a recurrence.

Wilting Leaves

Root illnesses can cause wilting leaves, such as a fungal infection like verticillium, Phytophthora, or root collar cankers or wounds. Soil nematodes also feed on roots, creating openings for fungus to get into the root system. Often, too much water is to blame for root rot and water-based molds infecting the tree.

If the tree has a verticillium infection or Phytophthora, there's not much to do for it. You withhold water to see if it dries out, and the tree can fight the disease. You can also try to treat the soil with fungicide. If it's a bad root rot infection, it will need to be dug up and destroyed to prevent the fungus from spreading.

FAQ
  • How long does a 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple live?

    Japanese maples of all types live, on average, about 100 years. These slow-growing trees grow about 1 foot per year for the first 50 years, reaching maturity after about eight to 10 years.

  • Can 'Red Dragon' Japanese maple be grown indoors?

    You can try to grow these compact Japanese maple trees indoors, and you can prune them to be bonsai plants, but ultimately, they are not indoor plants. They may survive for a year or two, but they will not thrive or last long.

  • What's the difference between 'Red Dragon' and 'Crimson Queen' Japanese maple trees?

    'Red Dragon' has rich, dark red leaves and retains its color better than the brownish-red leaves of 'Crimson Queen.'

Article Sources
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  1. Japanese maples. Johnson County K-State Research and Extension.