The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Discovering Japanese Maples

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

Even though I have been gardening for many years a few plants intimidate me. Not in the "if you plant me I will promptly eat your house" way but more the "I'm a delicate diva and if you don't give me what I want I will promptly expire" way. Japanese maples fascinate me and intimidate me all at the same time. Their amazing diversity is captivating and I'm finally ready to take the plunge. Of course fall plant sales may also be influencing me.

What we refer to as a Japanese maple is generally a cultivated variety (cultivar) of Acer palmatum but Fullmoon maple, Acer japonicum, is often thrown into the Japanese maple mix. A staggering diversity of over 700 cultivars translates into a promise of a tree for just about any personal desire for pretty and any landscape use.

With so many cultivars it's difficult to make generalities about their character. However, all the cultivars of Japanese maples take on a new persona with each season.

In spring the new leaves appear with vibrant colors of red, yellow, pink, or rich green. Variegated cultivars are a party of colors. As summer arrives leaf color intensifies with deeper greens or purples. Autumn brings spectacular flames of color. Depending on the cultivar fall leaves show off shades of yellow, orange, red, or purple. Once the leaves have flamed out their branches bare all with twisted, weeping, mounded or upright statements of various sizes and shapes.

The chaos of Japanese maple cultivars include leaves that vary from fine texture to coarse in amazing kaleidoscopes of color. With sizes of dwarf to 30-35 feet tall their uses are limited only by a gardener's imagination: specimen, focal point, alpine plantings, near water gardens, containers, or bonsai.

Here are a few tips if you are considering dipping your toe into the sea of Japanese maples:

  • Do your homework on cultivars to acquire the desired plant characteristics. Not all cultivars are readily available; however several specialty nurseries are listed on the Internet.
  • Buy the shape and size desired. Forget coercing them.
  • Location, location, location. Think long and hard when selecting the planting site.
  • Well drained, slightly acidic soils with consistent moisture are fundamental needs for most.
  • Plant on a slight mound in poorly drained soil or look for a new site.
  • Afternoon shade or dappled shade is best for most. Too much shade may translate into slow growth, red-leaved types turn greener, variegated types may be predominately greener and yellows may not show gold undertones in heavy shade. In too much sun cutleaf and variegated forms can literally fry.
  • Protect from wind such as on the east side of the house.
  • Protect from late spring frosts. Japanese maples tend to leaf out early and a year of growth or entire plant can be lost. The goal is to encourage them to leaf out later which can be encouraged through mulching 3-4 inches with organic mulch such as wood chips and siting in a shady area that is slow to warm in spring. Be sure not to place mulch next to the tree trunk.
  • First few years of special care will get your tree off to a good start. Keep soil moist but not soggy and mulch. Fertilize only if soil test reveals a need to lower the pH.

'Bloodgood' is a common cultivar. Unfortunately there are more than one clone in the trade so investigate the specific plant before buying to make sure it has the desired characteristics. It can reach 15-20 feet tall with a rounded habit. 'Bloodgood' has excellent red fall color and is probably the most cold hardy of reddish purple forms.

Great book for cultivars: Japanese Maples by J.D. Vertrees.

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