Extension Educator, Horticulture
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:
'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.