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Japanese maples line a path in a park.
Perhaps the most beautifully structured small tree with gorgeous foliage that reflects the seasons the Japanese maple can add a new layer of elegance to your garden.

What you need to know about Japanese maples

Name: Japanese maple (Acer palmatum cvs).

Plant type: deciduous small tree.

Height: to 5m but many varieties included grafted weeping forms.

Foliage: basic species form is a classic maple leaf shape of 5 or 7 ‘fingers’ radiating from the leaf centre (technically described as ‘palmately-lobed’). Great variation in colour and form across the 1000+ recognised forms.

Climate: cold temperate. Warm temperate in suitable microclimates.

Soil: deep and free-draining with added organic matter to retain moisture.

Position: full-sun, protection from western sun in warmer areas, protection from strong and drying winds.

Flowering and fruiting: not grown for flowers or fruit but will flower in spring and then drop winged seeds called samaras in autumn.

Feeding: little required once established. Annual application of controlled release fertiliser.

Watering: must have reliable moisture, especially across summer, but not be waterlogged.

Appearance and characteristics

Japanese maples have a certain air to them that always brings you to pause and reflect. A fully-grown specimen has a wonderful form that looks for all the world like a Bonsai tree made large. It’s not just their form that makes them a worthwhile landscape or potted addition. Their foliage has some absolutely stunning shapes and colours.

Starting out in vibrant hues in spring before settling down to their summer shades and then colouring up for autumn. If you’re after a small deciduous tree then it’s hard to go past the Japanese maple.

There are two main forms of Japanese maple you’ll encounter but there is great variation within the species.

  • Tree form: varying in size, however, this is the typical form of a Japanese maple – a short, stout trunk with widely spreading branches starting about 1m or so up the trunk.
  • Grafted weeping: here a weeping Japanese maple or cascading variety is grafted onto a taller trunk. This creates a flowing form that with time will appear as a cascading mound.

Japanese maples are wonderfully seasonal deciduous trees.

  • Spring: buds burst, leaves unfurl and expand. Often, they’ll be vibrant colours.
  • Summer: foliage colour settles down to its regular hue. This can still be deep burgundy shades or a wide range of greens and bronzes. There are even variegated forms.
  • Autumn: many varieties will display awesome autumn colour – brilliant reds, oranges and yellows.
  • Winter: the sculptural, filigree form of the leafless tree becomes its own feature.
Close up of the orange leaves of a Japanese maple tree. 

Uses for Japanese maples

  • Excellent small feature tree.
  • Great for small courtyards or balconies in pots and planters.
  • Look stunning beside water features.
  • Must have inclusion in an Asian inspired or Zen garden.

Preferred conditions for Japanese maples

The Japanese maples originally come from areas with deep soil and consistent rainfall that is spread quite evenly across the year and that pretty neatly sums up their requirements – good soil and reliable moisture.

They prefer full sun, however, the warmer the overall climate the less sun exposure they need. In a warm temperate zone protection from afternoon sun is advisable. They dislike very dry air as it will quickly scorch their often delicate leaves, especially the very fine leaved “Dissectum” forms, so they must be protected from strong, hot or drying winds.

They can tolerate temperatures to -10˚C and a good, cold winter will improve both spring and autumn foliage colour.

How to plant a Japanese maple

  1. Improve soil with the addition of compost or well-composted manure.
  2. Mulch soil to help keep moisture levels stable.
  3. In warmer regions consider covering the area immediately underneath the tree’s canopy with stones, such as loosely-spaced thin, sandstone flags or large river pebbles, as this will help keep roots cool.

Caring for a Japanese maple

  • Use fallen leaves in autumn as mulch around the tree.
  • In pots or in the ground Japanese maples are very unforgiving of drying out.
  • Ensure that they are kept reliably moist.

Pruning Japanese maples

  • Very little pruning required.
  • Can be carefully pruned to develop a particular form.
  • In winter when foliage has fallen inspect tree and look for any dead or damaged wood and remove.

Propagating Japanese maples

Grafting is the method generally used to reproduce a particular variety. However, Japanese maples grow readily from seed and you will find great variation in the seedlings leaf colour and shape.

Growing Japanese maples from seed

  1. Collect the samaras as they begin to fall.
  2. If you have a heated propagation tray then they can be sown immediately in a seed raising mix.
  3. Otherwise hold seeds until spring by storing in a tub of dry propagating sand in the refrigerator.
  4. In spring sow in a seed raising mix, keep warm and moist.

Choosing a Japanese maple

If you’re shopping for a grafted weeping Japanese maple remember that it’s mature height will be determined by the original grafted trunk height. Buy a plant that is the height you desire as it won’t grow significantly taller.

If you like this then try

How to plant a tree: all the tips you need for preparing the soil for larger plants.

Clumping bamboo: the perfect landscape partner for a Japanese maple.

Bonsai: create your own Bonsai with your Japanese maple seeds.

Start planting today

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