Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) are prized for their delicate and colorful foliage throughout the growing season, including during fall. Generally hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8, this tree is a smallish, slow-growing species, with mature heights of 4 to 30 feet, depending on cultivar. Although the tree blooms in spring, it is the delicate palmate leaves with 5, 7, or 9 toothed lobes that offer the real appeal. The foliage offers striking color throughout the growing season, becoming even more beautiful with the fall color change.
There are many recommended cultivars that produce the familiar red-colored foliage, but there are also cultivars that provide brilliant green or gold tones, and even a few that have bi-colored leaves. While there are many ways to classify Japanese maples, leaf color is a valuable way, since the color is the reason most people plant this tree.
There are fine examples of red Japanese maple trees, including weeping types, that fall into either the Acer palmatum atropurpureum group or the Acer palmatum dissectum group. The dissectum group is known for its lacy "dissected" leaves. They often display red-colored leaves all summer, which become a brighter red in fall, making them spectacular specimen trees for fall. Suitable for USDA hardiness zones 5 to 8, they should be planted full to partial sun and in well-drained soil. In zones 7 to 8, they can profit from the respite from the heat by planting them in an area with partial shade or dappled sunlight.
- 'Bloodgood' (Acer palmatum atropurpureum 'Bloodgood'): This is one of the most popular cultivars. It achieves a maximum size of 20 feet tall with a similar spread, making it just the right size for patio landscaping. The leaves of 'Bloodgood' are reddish-purple in summer (but tend to green-up some in full sun). At fall foliage time, the leaves deepen into crimson red.
- 'Coonara Pygmy' (Acer palmatum 'Coonara Pygmy'): This dwarf cultivar grows only about 4 feet tall and is hardy in zones 6 to 9. It has burgundy/maroon foliage that turns reddish-orange in fall.
- 'Crimson Queen' (Acer palmatum dissectum 'Crimson Queen'): This is a small specimen, reaching a height of just 8 to 10 feet and a spread of 10 to 12 feet. This petite monarch will grace any lawn with its pleasing weeping habit and dissected leaf type. It also has dark red summer leaves that mature to a crimson color. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
- 'Red Dragon' (Acer palmatum dissectum 'Red Dragon'): This is a smallish (6 to 8 feet) cultivar with reddish-purple foliage that transform into bright crimson red in fall. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
- 'Garnet' (Acer palmatum dissectum 'Garnet'): Hardy in zones 5 to 9, this cultivar grows to a mature height of 9 to 12 feet with a similar spread. Its foliage remains reddish-orange through the growing season, fading to purplish-green in fall. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
Yellow- and Gold-Leaved Cultivars
- Full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum'). This cultivar, hardy in USDA zones 5 to 7, grows to 16 to 20 feet in height with a similar spread. Its showy bright yellow foliage gradually deepens to yellow-green in summer, then turns orange-red in fall.
- 'Autumn Moon' (Acer shirasawanum 'Autumn Moon'): This cultivar is one of the few that is hardy into the lower portions of USDA hardiness zone 4. It grows to a maximum of 20 feet and has orange-gold leaves that turn brilliant reddish-orange in fall.
- 'Beni Kawa' (Acer palmatum 'Beni-kawa'): This cultivar tops out at about 15 feet and is known for having colorful red bark. Soft green spring leaves gradually turn yellow-gold through summer and into fall. It is slow-growing, remaining under 7 feet tall until it is about 10 years old. It is hardy in zones 5 to 9.
- 'Sango-kabu' or Coral bark maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango-kaku'): This is a full-size cultivar, growing to 25 feet in height, though it is quite slow-growing. This is another cultivar with red bark that can provide good winter interest. The leaves are yellow-green then emerge, deepening into yellow-gold by fall. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
- Cutleaf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum 'Filigree'): This is a compact tree, reaching 4 to 6 feet with a spread of 6 to 9 feet. Suitable for zones 5 to 8, it has the familiar lacy leaves of others in the dissectum group. The leaves are solid green through summer, turning golden in fall.
- 'Green Tea' (Acer palmatum 'Green Tea'): This cultivar has a unique leaf color similar to that of green tea. New spring growth begins as a stunning pink-red, laced with green veins. The leaves then age to dark green; fall color is orange and red. 'Green Tea' is a vigorous, upright maple that grows to 12 feet tall and 7 feet wide in about 10 years. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
- 'Butterfly' (Acer palmatum 'Butterfly'): This is perhaps the most common of all variegated cultivars. It is a shrubby tree, growing 7 to 12 feet in height. Gray-green flowers with creamy white margins appear in spring, and the white portions turn magenta or red in the fall. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
- 'Peaches and Cream' (Acer palmatum 'Peaches and Cream'): This cultivar grows to about 10 feet in height, and has variegated creamy-white leaves with dark green veins. The foliage turns yellow in fall. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.
- 'First Ghost' (Acer palmatum 'First Ghost'): A relatively small upright tree, this cultivar tops out at about 7 feet wide with a 4-foot spread. In spring, cream-white leaves are tipped with red, with prominent dark green veins running throughout the leaves. In summer, the leaves shift to various shades of green, then turn yellow and orange in fall.
- 'Geisha' (Acer palmatum 'Geisha'): This is one of the most spectacular of all variegated Japanese maples. In spring, the new leaves are hot pink, then age to green with flecks of white and pink in summer, then change to spectacular orange in fall. A small upright tree, it grows to 6 feet tall and 3 feet wide in about 10 years. It is hardy in zones 5 to 8.