With their gloriously colored foliage and graceful shapes, Japanese maple trees – or Acer palmatum – will make an impact in any garden. There are many varieties and sizes to choose from, with trees available to suit most situations.
‘Japanese maple trees are the epitome of beauty, gracing upscale landscapes of fine gardens throughout the United States and Europe,’ says Tammy Sons, owner of Garden Delights Nursery. 'They are highly sought-after trees, and are generally low maintenance.'
With shades ranging from bright yellow through to deepest red, acers are truly the best trees for autumn color.
'However, their vibrant foliage colors make them a favorite of many due to the interest they add to the garden year-round, not just in the fall,' adds Sons.
Best Japanese maple trees to grow
There are hundreds of Japanese maple tree varieties to choose from, but it's important to only plant trees that will thrive in your area.
Check the USDA plant hardiness zone map, and make sure your chosen acer is suitable for your location. Most Japanese maple trees are suitable for zones 5-8, but some hardier varieties can be planted outside these boundaries.
Your soil type will also play a factor, as Japanese maple trees prefer slightly acidic, well-drained soil. They can struggle in very alkaline soil, and dislike being overly wet or dry.
However, if you don’t have the right conditions, the good news is that Japanese maples are some of the best trees to grow in pots, which allows you to control the soil type.
In colder zones, you could even move a potted tree to a more sheltered spot over winter.
You must also consider the tree’s mature size, to ensure it will fit your garden in the long term. Many Japanese maple trees are slow growing and can take a long time to reach full size. However, if your yard is small you should consider a dwarf variety.
Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ is one of the most popular Japanese maple trees available, featuring deep purple leaves that turn bright red in the fall – making it one of the best trees for autumn color, too. ‘With such spectacular foliage, Bloodgood is one of my favorite varieties,’ says Sons.
In the spring, the tree reveals small purple flowers, which are replaced by red fruits in the summer.
Bloodgood is ideally planted in partial shade, and thrives in zones 5-8.
2. Emperor I
‘Emperor 1 is an upright red Japanese maple that takes all the things people love about the Bloodgood acer and improves upon them,’ says Lisa Tadewaldt, arborist and owner of Urban Forest Pro.
As well as being more tolerant of early spring frosts, Emperor’s stunning red fall leaves last for longer than other varieties. The tree is suitable for zones 5-8, though some gardeners have had success in zone 4.
‘Its vibrant – and unmistakable – red color goes from black-red to scarlet in fall, and it also has a dark and distinctive black-red bark,’ adds Tadewaldt.
‘They're just really aesthetically pleasing trees while also being hardy. Perfect for adding a punch of color to your landscaping.’
3. Sango-Kaku or Coral Bark
‘The Sango-Kaku or Coral Bark is one of my favourite Japanese maple trees,’ says Blythe Yost, CEO of online landscape design company Tilly.
A smaller variety suitable for zones 5-9, the Coral Bark features green leaves that turn bright yellow in the fall, and has striking red-pink bark.
‘It’s lovely during the spring and summer, but the bark really shines in winter months when the landscape dims to browns and greys. It is especially wonderful when set off against the snow.’
‘Many of us associate fall with deciduous trees changing all varieties of colors, but having that red bark as a foundation is really special,’ adds Tadewaldt.
‘The Coral Bark is really great for yards that are lacking color and interest in the winter, as the bark will jump out with vibrancy even when the leaves fall.’
4. Velvet Viking
‘One of the hardiest Japanese maple trees of all, the Velvet Viking is suitable for zones 4-9,’ says Sons. ‘It features delicate, thin-shaped leaves and purple-red foliage in spring and summer, with much deeper hues of purple in fall.’
The Velvet Viking thrives in partial shade but in cooler climates with mild heat can withstand being positioned in full sun.
As it’s a dwarf variety, it’s a fantastic option for small gardens. ‘Its height at maturity gets near 5ft, with a canopy width near 8ft,’ adds Sons.
5. Red Dissected
‘The classic Red Dissected – Dissectum Atropurpureum – Japanese maple tree is a real favorite,’ says Codey Stout, head operations manager at Tree Triage.
‘Its small mature size of 5-6ft makes it an excellent element in any garden, while its weeping branches add a touch of elegance.’
The Red Dissected maple features red-to-purple feathery leaves, which turn deep orange-red in the fall. It will thrive in zones 5-8, and its size makes it one of the best trees for front yards.
Ukigumo – or Floating Clouds – is an upright and semi-dense Japanese maple tree, however its standout feature is its stunning variegated foliage.
‘Each leaf transitions from high-contrast pale green/white to softer pinks at the tips,’ says Tadewaldt. ‘The white foliage is definitely a statement maker for your home's traditionally green landscaping. These are small trees to use for a pop of pink/white all summer long.’
Ukigumo will grow in most soil types, ideally in partial shade, in zones 5-9.
‘A fantastic dwarf Japanese maple tree, Shania may be compact in form but it offers dense foliage when it gets fully mature,’ says Sons.
The tree has vibrant red leaves in the spring that deepen to burgundy in the summer, before turning bright red again in the fall.
‘Shania grows well in partial shade, reaching 10ft in height and 12-14ft in width,’ adds Sons. It’s suitable for hardiness zones 5-9.
‘The Higasayama Japanese maple tree has such beautiful coloring,’ says Emilly Barbosa Fernandes, small space gardening expert at House Grail. ‘When the leaves open you’ll see pink outside edges before it turns green.’
The tree also features uniquely shaped buds, and is an upright, vigorous variety that thrives in zones 5-8.
‘It grows best in filtered light although it can handle full sun,’ adds Barbosa Fernandes. ‘If it’s in an open position it can grow to about 18ft tall.’
9. Red Dragon
‘Red Dragon is slower growing than most Japanese maple trees, making it the perfect maple for containers,’ says Sons. ‘Its leaves start as purple in spring, turning blood red near fall.’
Ultimately the Red Dragon can reach a height of over 5ft, with a spread of 6ft. It thrives in both full sun and partial shade, in zones 5-8.
10. Weeping Japanese maple – Crimson Queen
‘Lots of people looking for a Japanese maple tree want a weeping variety. While I would caution people that these varieties are high-maintenance, the best all-around variety for that form is the Crimson Queen,’ says Tadewaldt.
‘They're known for their delicate form, distinctive laceleaf, and intense red color.’
Crimson Queen reaches 8-10ft when mature, and thrives in zones 5-9. Plant in full sun or partial shade.
Growing Japanese maple bonsai trees
Japanese maples are a popular option for bonsai trees due to their elegant shape, stunning colors and slow growing habit. In the right climate zones acers make for hardy miniature trees that can overwinter outdoors.
‘The dwarf maple 'Sharp's Pygmy’ is a favorite of serious bonsai artists,’ says Tadewaldt. ‘They can live in a pot for hundreds of years.’
Japanese maple bonsai trees require regular trimming to maintain their shape, and should be repotted every couple of years.
Growing Japanese maple trees in pots
Smaller varieties of Japanese maple trees are ideal for growing in pots over their whole life. They can even benefit from it as acers tend to have a shallow root system that can easily be impacted by other trees.
However, some larger species will also live happily in pots for a long time. A lot of varieties are slow growing, and can take many years to reach maturity.
Another benefit of growing Japanese maple trees in pots is that you can tailor their soil to create the optimum mix – ideally a loamy well-draining potting mix that is slightly acidic. Make sure you include plenty of organic matter.
Bear in mind that potted trees will need watering more regularly than those planted in the ground.
Dwarf Japanese maple trees
There are a number of dwarf Japanese maple trees available, which are fantastic small garden ideas.
They tend to reach a maximum height of 6-8ft, but are slow growing, so can take a long time to reach this size. Their leaves may be smaller, but their canopy will often be as wide as their height.
Dwarf Japanese maples make ideal bonsai trees, and are fantastic options for containers.
Japanese maple trees care
‘Japanese maple trees are easy to grow in any type of well-draining soil, and caring for them isn’t complicated,’ says Stout. 'Just provide them with enough water in summer, and give them a good pruning in late winter before leaf buds appear.’
Mulch the trees every other year with compost or well-rotted manure, but avoid getting this on the trunk.
If growing Japanese maple trees in pots, feed them every spring with slow-release fertilizer, and keep the soil moist but not over-wet. In a very cold winter, the trees will benefit from the pots being wrapped with bubble wrap. This will provide insulation to prevent the roots from freezing.
How to prune Japanese maple trees
Prune Japanese maple trees in the winter, when they are dormant. As the trees have such a lovely natural shape, it’s best to prune them with a light touch, selecting poorly positioned and crossed branches for removal.
Where Japanese maple trees have become overgrown, they will need a more thorough prune. ‘In the early 2000s it seems like every new landscape included a Japanese split leaf maple – now many of those trees have outgrown their locations and have taken on a Cousin It appearance,’ says Yost.
‘Think about reducing the interior density of the trees by eliminating a third of their branches. Ideally, you should be able to see some daylight through them when they're totally leafed out.’
Do Japanese maple trees lose their leaves?
Japanese maples trees lose their leaves as they are deciduous trees. This happens between fall and winter.
Don’t worry when this happens, as the tree will recover and develop new growth in the spring.
Where is the best place to plant a Japanese maple tree?
Japanese maple trees can grow to varying sizes, though most will reach somewhere between 5-25ft. However, there are varieties that will grow as small as 2ft and as big as 35ft, so check the mature size of the tree before purchasing.
Do Japanese maple trees grow fast?
Japanese maple trees are slow to moderate growers, growing around 1-2ft per year. Some varieties will reach mature height in a decade, while others can take several decades.
As editor of Period Living, Britain's best-selling period homes magazine, Melanie loves the charm of older properties. I live in a rural village just outside the Cotswolds in England, so am lucky to be surrounded by beautiful homes and countryside, where I enjoy exploring. Having worked in the industry for almost two decades, Melanie is interested in all aspects of homes and gardens. Her previous roles include working on Real Homes and Homebuilding & Renovating, and she has also contributed to Gardening Etc. She has an English degree and has also studied interior design. Melanie frequently writes for Homes & Gardens about property restoration and gardening.
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