Native to China, Korea and Japan, the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is a small, ornamental tree popular in many parts of the United States. Its striking foliage colors, fine leaf texture and interesting shape offer eye appeal in all seasons. There are hundreds of cultivars available, each with distinctive features.
The compact size of the Japanese maple makes it a top choice for tight spaces. With its showy features, it is often used alone as a landscape accent or specimen tree. Most are grown as single-trunked trees, but Japanese maples are sometimes grown as multiple-stemmed shrubs. Several Japanese maples can be clustered together to create an enchanting mini-woodland effect. Japanese maples are also grown as container plants or used for bonsai.
Size and Shape
The mature size of the Japanese maple varies significantly depending on the cultivar. Heights range from approximately 12 to 25 feet. Spreads range from 10 to 25 feet. The form also varies and adds to the Japanese maple's ornamental value. Most are upright and rounded in form. Some are dense and compact. Others feature widely spreading or cascading branches. A twisted shape in some cultivars adds special interest in winter.
Japanese maples have 2-inch to 5-inch leaves, each with five, seven or nine lance-shaped lobes. They are prized for their rich color, which varies with the cultivar. Summer colors include solid or variegated shades of green, red, bronze, purple or even black. Some sport intense coloration in spring and fall in bright orange, pink, yellow, chartreuse, crimson or maroon. Certain varieties need sunlight to bring out the brightest hues. Leaf shape also varies. Some varieties, known as "cutleaf" types, have leaves with long, narrow lobes. This gives the entire tree a lacy appearance.
Smooth bark and colorful twigs add to the ornamental value of the Japanese maple. The bark of the trunk is typically gray. Some cultivars feature shiny red or green twigs that provide vivid contrast against a winter backdrop.
Japanese maples are relatively easy to care for if planted in an appropriate location. Most thrive in Zones 6 to 8. Some are hardy to Zone 5. They grow best in moist, slightly acidic soil with plenty of organic matter. They prefer full sun to partial shade but can suffer from leaf scorch in intensely sunny or windy sites.
Japanese maples are relatively expensive. Potted trees can cost $50-$300 or more. Before choosing a Japanese maple, study the many available cultivars to find one that meets your needs for size, shape, color and form. Look for colors to accent your landscape without clashing against existing shades. Choose a size to fit your space and decide on a leaf shape and growing pattern that meets your aesthetic goals for the area.