Japanese maples are among the most versatile landscape trees. They are small and can complement most landscape designs. The leaf varieties are endless, as are the color choices. They fit in well with the North American native flora, and pose no environmental concerns and they even closely resemble the small native maple (Acer circinatum). The delicate leaves and flowing structure of the branches create a pleasant, peaceful addition to any garden.
Japanese maples have countless leaf shapes. The leaves are all palmate in a variety of sizes. Most have five to seven lobes, but there can be more. The lobes can be simple or very serrated. Some lobes have narrow dissected leaves. Leaf color can be green, red, purple or chartreuse. The small flowers, which appear in late winter or early spring, are inconspicuous small green to yellow flowers, but some may be red. They have winged seeds (sumara), which are more delicate and colorful than those of larger maples. The bark of most Japanese maples is smooth and green with a clean appearance. Some have variations of red or yellow in the bark.
Japanese maple trees come in several different varieties. Japanese lace-leaf maples (Acer palmatum dissectum) are small landscape shrubs. They range from 4 to 6 feet in height. The leaves are very finely cut in red or green. The wood becomes twisted over time, so the lower limbs are often trimmed away to expose the wood. There are a large group of Japanese maples that grow from 6 to 10 feet high. These are useful placed under trees to fill the mid-story portion of the garden. The species Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is an 18- to 25-foot tree. The leaves are green with a tinge of red on the edges. There are many variations bred from this tree. Two popular red leaved varieties are Acer palmatum "Atropurpureum" and Acer palmatum "Bloodgood." The coral bark maple (Acer palmatum "Sango Kaku") develops vivid red bark in the winter and has become one of the most popular maples. They can be very affordable trees used in any landscape. To collectors they are like fine art--the rarer ones can be very expensive.
Japanese maples can be used in a variety of different landscape settings and are appreciated for their beauty. Because of their stature, they are a good choice for small yards and gardens. The larger tree types will reach 20 to 25 feet, with many remaining at 15 to 20 feet tall. This is important since many home lots are small and cannot support larger trees. Japanese maples blend well with many North American native plants and they look good in natural, woodland and Asian-themed garden designs. Japanese maples can be enjoyed year-round. The attractive spring new growth is often red or yellow. In the summer the ornamental leaves decorate the garden. The foliage of many varieties turn vibrant yellow, orange, red and purple colors in the fall. Japanese maples have an attractive silhouette in winter, and some varieties even have ornamental bark.
Japanese maples are easy to grow. They are not fast-growing trees, and are not considered good shade trees. They like evenly moist but not soggy soil. Some leaves are delicate and subject to burn and those with finely cut or light colored foliage need protection from the sun and wind. They can be grown in containers as long as they are large enough to support the root system. Top-dress once a year around the base of the tree with rich compost. This will keep in moisture and provide nutrients. Japanese maples are hardy to USDA zones 5 to 8.
Since these are not large plants, pruning is done only to shape them. They can handle severe pruning since they are routinely used in the art of bonsai. Minimal pruning will allow the natural shape of the trees to develop. Dead wood can be pruned at any time. Prune new wood when the trees are dormant in early spring. This will prevent the trees from bleeding. When containerized maples are transplanted to a larger vessel, some root pruning may be necessary to contain their size.