The Japanese maple is a popular garden tree, often used as a backdrop against which fancier plants can grow. The tree has a silvery, slender trunk and leaves that turn bright red in sun, but remain green in shade. The leaves remain on the tree from early spring until late winter. There are over 400 varieties of Japanese maple, which come in every shape and size imaginable.
Measure the tree's total height. Upright varieties of Japanese maples such as bloodgood may attain up to 20 feet in height, but dwarf varieties may only reach 12 feet.
Observe the tree's growth habits. Upright Japanese maples grow into a vase shape, while dwarf varieties spread out laterally, like burgundy lace, or remain in a compact ball shape, like azuma murasaki.
Pick a leaf off the tree and examine the shape. Leaf shape varies greatly among Japanese maples. Some trees, such as bloodgood, produce leaves that look like traditional maple leaves. Laceleaf varieties produce thin leaves with a lacy appearance. Bamboo-leaf types of Japanese maple have extremely narrow leaves with lobes that extend inward almost completely to the leaf's base and margins that are not serrated.
Look at the leaf's coloring. Common Japanese maple leaves such as those of bloodgood may be completely red where the sun touches them, but green in shady areas. Variegated cultivars have multicolored leaves. For example, butterfly varieties are green with pink or cream-colored margins, while the floating clouds cultivar will appear green with white margins and pink spots.