How to Grow and Care for Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple

Quick Overview

Plant Type: Shrubs - trees
Family: Acer-maples
Sun Exposure: Filtered sun (morning sun) to part shade
Watering: Average needs
Colors: Red, purple, brown, burnt yellow
Size: 15 to 25 feet tall and wide
Hardiness Zones: 5–9
Soil Type: Chalk, sand, clay, loam
Soil pH: Slightly acidic, organically rich
Propagation: By grafting or softwood cuttings
Toxicity: Non-toxic

The Japanese is Maple native to Japan, where it has been widely cultivated for centuries. They were brought to Europe in the early 19th century and have continued to be bred into hundreds of beautiful cultivars. 

Japanese maple trees are deciduous, perennial trees. They are attractive with bright foliage that changes color throughout the year. They are simple to grow and care for, too, so they make a low-maintenance addition to your landscape as a tree or a shrub. Be sure to plant your Japanese maple somewhere where it will receive some shade. It does not tolerate continuous sunlight well. An area where it will receive only morning light is preferred. It is tolerant of many types of soil, provided that it is well-draining. Prune your tree, if needed, during the dormant season. The most care your tree will likely need is making sure it has enough water during the summer when it is hot or if there is not enough natural rain.

Even though these plants are simple to care for, there are some tips about their care, preferences, and growth cycle that are helpful to keep in mind. Do these things and you will have a healthy Japanese maple that will brighten up your yard year after year.  

Japanese Maple

About Japanese maple

The Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) is a tree known for its bright red leaves in the fall. It is often planted for ornamentation because of its eye-catching color. Though red is the color its leaves are most commonly known for, the leaves also come in green, yellow, orange, and purple. They make excellent lawn trees. But they can be grown as shrubs, container plants, and even bonsai trees.

The name Japanese maple does not refer to just one species, but rather the whole Acer species native to Japan. This species has been cultivated for centuries. And today, there are over 300 cultivar options from which potential landscapers can choose. 

Japanese Maple

How to Grow Japanese Maple

Temperature

Japanese maples grow best in USDA plant hardiness zones 6-8. Some varieties are sturdier and can tolerate zone 5. Their delicate leaves can be prone to sunburn if they receive too much light. They can also be sensitive to excessive wind and extended warm temperatures. Too much wind combined with high temperatures can dry out the leaves and scorch the trunk and branches. 

This scorching is more likely in young trees, in particular. The trees do become more tolerant as they age. Try to plant your Japanese maple somewhere where it will be protected from the wind. 

Japanese maples tend to leaf early, so be sure to also protect them in the case of a late frost in the Spring. To protect them from frost, cover them with a cover for outdoor trees, burlap, or tarp. 

Soil & Fertilizer

Any type of soil is usually fine for Japanese maple trees, but it does need to be well-draining. 

As with any plant, you want to be sure your tree is never in standing water for extended periods, as this can rot the roots. When you first plant your tree, a layer of sphagnum peat or some other organic matter in the hole will help with drainage. This organic matter will help sandy soil retain moisture and also helps break up clay soil to allow it to drain better. 

A layer of mulch can help the soil retain moisture throughout the summer, but be sure to keep it away from the base of the tree to prevent root rot.

Japanese maple trees should only be fertilized after they are at least a year old. Then, do so in the later winter or early Spring. They are slow-growers, so be sure to use a slow-release fertilizer. 

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Japanese Maple Trees Dimensions

Japanese maples vary slightly in height depending on their cultivar. Upright trees will grow, on average, to be 15-25 feet tall and wide. There are dwarf Japanese maple trees and weeping varieties that are smaller. Shrubs varieties are smaller, too. They typically grow to be around 4-5 feet in height and spread. 

Growth Rate

Young trees exhibit a more medium growth rate. This means they can grow 10-15 feet in 10 years for the average tree cultivar. As the tree ages, it grows more slowly. Full-grown, they reach 15 to 25 feet on average, though they can grow up to 40 feet. This size will vary, too, among varieties. 

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple General Care

Light 

Japanese maple trees need good sun, but they also definitely need shade. In fact, they are very shade tolerant. In some areas, they are planted as understory trees because of their shade tolerance. This shade tolerance allows them to survive under the layer of larger trees’ foliage. Err on the side of more shade when planting your tree. And consider planting your tree somewhere where it will receive only morning sun. Morning sun is best. 

Watering Japanese Maple

The most care your Japanese maple tree will likely need is providing enough water during the summer or when there is not enough natural rain. Consistent watering is especially important when they are young and establishing themselves. Japanese maple tend to become more resilient as they age. 

If you like, you can cut back on the amount of water you distribute in late summer to encourage brighter color in the fall bloom. 

Japanese Maple

Japanese Maple Propagation

Japanese maple trees can be propagated primarily by seed and grafting. Some varieties can be propagated by cuttings, as well, but this varies based on the type of tree. 

Propagating Japanese Maple by Seed

Propagation by seed is simple and can be done by most individuals at home. Simply collect seeds from the tree in the fall after they ripen. You can tell they are ready to collect when they turn brown. 

Japanese maple seeds have a think exterior. Left to their natural devices, it can take up to two years for them to germinate on their own. 

This process can be sped up at home. Follow the below steps:

  • Collect your Japanese maple seeds and separate them from the wings. 
  • Place them in a bag. Keep in a cool place until you are ready to start the planting process.
  • 100 days before you want to plant your seed, take your Japanese maple seeds and pour warm/hot water on them.
  • Let them soak in this water for 24 hours. (By the end of these 24 hours, most seeds should have sunk to the bottom of the container.) 
  • After this, take your seeds and move them to another bag that has sand and peat inside. Be sure the mixture is damp but not wet. 
  • Puncture the bag so that there are holes in it. 
  • Put your seeds in a refrigerator. 
  • After 100 days, the seeds are ready to plant. 

You can plant your seeds directly outside, provided that it is the right time of year. Water them thoroughly. But do allow the soil to dry out before watering again. 

Be protective of young plants to be sure they do not receive too much sunlight. 

Propagating Japanese Maple by Grafting 

Grafting is considered to be the most widely accepted method of propagation for Japanese maples. It is done by melding a rootstock and scion of two existing plants together. Typically a scion is taken from a cultivar and bonded with an existing rootstock. 

Its recommended that this process take place in the winter. And the trunk of the existing rootstock must be at least .25 cm. 

Most nurseries graft Japanese maples in-house. This means you can purchase an already-grafted plant easily at your local nursery or online. 

Japanese Maple

Pruning Japanese Maples

Generally, Japanese maple trees do not require a lot of pruning. If you need to prune your tree, do so in late winter before the leaf buds open. Prune away interior branches or stray branches, but be sure to keep the structural branches untouched. You can do light cosmetic pruning at any point throughout the year if desired.

Read our article How to Prune a Japanese maple to learn more about how to prune your Japanese maple tree! 

What do Japanese Maple Trees Look Like

Leaves

Japanese maple tree leaves are showy, star-shaped leaves that grow on the Japanese maple tree in the early Spring. The leaves are typically between 2-5 inches long, with 5 or 7 lobes. The leaf color can vary among cultivars, but they are typically purple or red. The leaves are their deepest color in the fall when the color changes and brightens. 

Flowers & Fruit

Japanese maple trees also produce small red flowers that bloom on the tree in May or June. They are grown in clusters. These flowers become winged samaras, which are fruit from which the seed develops. These ripen in the fall (September or October) and are spread by the wind. 

Bark

Japanese maple trees have mostly smooth bark that is typically gray or green. The trunk is slightly fluted, meaning it has slight grooves or ridges present. Japanese maple trees do not produce any thorns, so you do not have to worry about sharp protrusions harming little hands or curious pets. 

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Are Japanese Maple roots Invasive?

Japanese maple tree roots are not invasive. They tend to have shallow root systems that stay nearer to the surface than other trees. It is still good to do your research on how large your particular variety will likely grow, as this does vary. 

Maple tree roots often extend beyond the spread of the tree as they seek nutrients and water. So, it can impact their health if they are too close to a home foundation. 

It is always best practice to avoid planting large trees in areas where they might disrupt utility lines or pipes. 

Pests and Diseases

Diseases are not common in Japanese maples. And they rarely have trouble with pests. 

Aphids can sometimes affect maples. You may notice this if the tree’s leaves begin to drop at unusual times or if there is honeydew on the lower leaves. Scales can also show up on Japanese maple trees. You’ll notice them by cottony webbing on the underside of branches.

You can get rid of both of these pests, if needed, through natural oils or sprays. 

Traditional Uses of Japanese Maples

There are many different uses of Japanese maples traditionally. 

  • In Japan, paper-like leaves are used to make bouquets. Try this at home with your maple tree or bush. 
  • You will also see the Japanese maple featured widely in Japanese art and literature. 
  • On the Chinese calendar, the Japanese maple represents the month of October. 
  • In Osaka, Japan, there is a popular snack made from Japanese maple leaves. They are deep-fried in batter in batter and called Momiji tempera. 
Japanese Maple

Japanese Maples Varieties

There are hundreds of Japanese maple cultivars. Below are just a handful of notable ones you might consider when planting your own. 

  • Bloodgood. This variety is one of the most popular cultivars. It gets its name from its red leaves that turn deep crimson in the fall. But these leave also turn green the more fun they receive. 
  • Coonara Pygmy. This variety is great if you are looking for a Japanese maple to plant in a container. It’s a dwarf Japanese maple with pink leaves that turn orange-red during the fall months. 
  • Red Dragon. This variety is also a smaller cultivar with bright, red leaves that deepen in color during the fall. It tends to be more tolerant of sun than other varieties but still enjoys some shade. 
  • Villa Taranto. This maple is a weeping variety of Japanese maple. It is also a smaller cultivar that only grows 4-5 feet. 
  • Full Moon or Aureum. This variety has yellow leaves that turn orange in the fall. This variety can be trained to grow as a shrub or as a small tree. 
  • Autumn Moon. This is one of the small groups of cultivars that are hardy in USDA zone 4. It has beautiful yellow and orange leaves that turn yellow-green in the summer and bright orange in the fall. 
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Final Thoughts

Japanese maple trees are attractive trees with bright, eye-catching foliage. They are very simple to care for and come in many different varieties. This makes them great landscaping trees, as well as container shrubs. 

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