Japanese Maple Plant Profile

Acer palmatum

Maple tree changing from summer to autumn colour
Rosemary Calvert/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

The Japanese maple is a small tree that will fit into almost any yard. Prized for their striking leaves, they provide visual interest in fall and winter thanks to their leaf and samara colors.

As the name suggests, Japanese maples originated in East Asia and they are often part of traditional Japanese landscaping and garden design. Japanese maple trees are commonly used in bonsai as well. Momiji tempura is a snack popular in Osaka made from deep-frying salted Japanese maple leaves in a sweet batter and the tree features heavily in classical Japanese art and poetry.

The size of the Japanese maple differs by cultivar. It can range from a shrub to a small tree. The average size is 15-25' tall and wide. The shape is usually round or vase-like. It may also have a weeping shape.

The Japanese maple tree is renowned for its foliage. The leaves have five to nine palmate lobes. They may come in green or red. In the fall, the leaves will turn to brilliant shades of red, orange, yellow or purple. There are many different textures of leaves. Some have wide lobes, while others are finely dissected and lacy in appearance. Japanese maple flowers are small and red or purple; these become a dry winged fruit called a samara that is about a half-inch long.

The scientific name for this tree is Acer palmatum and it is placed in the Sapindaceae (soapberry) family with the other maple trees, but Japanese maple aficionados know there's something quite special about this variety compared to other family members.

Botanical Name Acer palmatum
Common Name Japanese maple
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 15 to 25 feet tall and wide
Sun Exposure Filtered sun to part shade
Soil Type Moist, well-drained
Soil pH Slightly acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Red or purple
Hardiness Zones 5–9
Native Area

Japan, China, Korea, parts of Mongolia and Russia

How to Grow Japanese Maple Trees

Japanese maples make a beautiful addition to any landscape design. While they have a reputation for being fussy, if you plant them in their preferred condition, they are really not that difficult to care for, although they are slow-growing so you'll need to have a bit of patience.

Japanese maples need very little pruning––you can prune out the lower branches if desired and remove any branches that have crossed for improved appearance. Other than that, simply remove any dead, diseased, or damaged branches. You can also control the appearance of the Japanese maple by choosing whether to train a single trunk or to allow multiple trunks to form.

Japanese maples are susceptible to common pests like aphids, scale, Japanese beetles, and borers. Diseases and other problems to watch out for include scorch, bark split, tar spot, verticillium wilt, leaf spots, twig kill, and manganese deficiency

Light

Grow Japanese maple in filtered sun to part shade. It is a suitable tree for full shade if needed, especially in the warmer zones, but different cultivars have different needs, so look into them before making a purchase. Afternoon sun is rarely tolerated by any cultivar, often resulting in sunburnt leaves.

Soil

Japanese maple trees like moist well-drained soil. Loamy and sandy soil will work well, but avoid soil that has high alkalinity; Japanese maples thrive with slight acidity.

Water

Although Japanese maples prefer well-draining soil, they also like to receive regular waterings. The easiest way to regulate the moisture level of the soil surrounding a Japanese maple is to mulch it. Until your tree is well-established, take the time to water it whenever the soil feels dry, particularly when it hasn't been raining much.

Temperature and Humidity

Grow green leaf varieties of Japanese maples in hot, dry climates. Otherwise, Japanese maples do best in zones 6 to 8, with some varieties that thrive in zone 5 as well. Protect your Japanese maple from areas that experience strong winds.

Fertilizer

You can fertilize your Japanese maple in late winter or early spring after it is a year old. You can also feed it again in summer as needed.

Propagating Japanese Maple Trees

You can propagate a Japanese maple through seeds and softwood cuttings. The different cultivars are also grafted onto rootstock.

Being Grown in Containers

Aside from their use in bonsai, dwarf Japanese maples can also be grown as traditional container trees and moved about the yard throughout the season. Plant them in a container with adequate drainage holes, because Japanese maples don't like to have their roots sitting in water. A high-quality potting soil is just fine as long as it's one that drains well.

Varieties of Japanese Maple

There are hundreds of different cultivars of the Japanese maple in a range of sizes, colors, shapes, and leaf textures. Some notable cultivars include:

  • Acer palmatum 'Coonara Pygmy': If you plan on growing your Japanese maple tree in a container, 'Coonara Pygmy' is a great choice. It's a dwarf maple with pinkish leaves in the spring that turn orange-red in the fall.
  • Acer palmatum 'Villa Taranto': For a weeping Japanese maple, try this variety. Its delicate leaves turn golden yellow in the fall.
  • Acer palmatum 'Wolff': One of the best cultivars for zone 5 gardeners (and maybe even zone 4), 'Wolff,' also known as Emperor I, has stunning purple foliage.
  • Acer palmatum 'Sumi nagashi': 'Sumi nagashi' is one of the faster-growing cultivars of the Japanese maple. It, too, will well grow in zone 5.