Japanese maple

Japanese maple

Japanese Maples are delicate looking small or large trees and they are one of the best foliage plants for the gardener.

Japanese Maples are natives to Japan, northeast China and Korea. In their natural habitat they are normally shaded by larger trees and so prefer partial shade.

They have been cultivated from the early 17th century and are prized in Japan not only for their leaves but also their branch structure which is seen in winter.

In Japan they are called  Momiji which means to change colour ("momizu"). They make excellent subjects for bonsai making superb small trees.

Japanese Maples can be grown in the ground or in pots. Container culture can extend their useful range. They are extremely easy to grow in containers, a practice taken to it's most extreme form in the art of bonsai.

Aside from their aestheticaly pleasing appearance and ease in growing, one well-placed Japanese maple can add hundreds or thousands of dollars in value to your property.

Most any garden soil will grow Japanese maples, but the soil must be well drained! Wet soggy soil around the roots is a killer. Good thing is: they'll often let you know if their feet are too wet if and when the leaves brown on the tips, though this browning can also be a sign of leaf scorch. They grow in a wide range of soil pH preferring a slightly acidic soil. The main thing you want to do when planting a Japanese maple is pick a site that offers good drainage - or do what is necessary to provide for good drainage.

Japanese maples will grow in sun or shade. In the deep South they benefit from some afternoon shade. In their natural habitat, Japanese maples are understory trees, growing in dappled forest sunlight and at the edges of woodlands. Ideally they prefer to be grown in similar conditions. Bright sunlight and hot summers do not kill trees, but in hot summer areas, the newest leaves may burn and scald in these conditions.

Young Japanese maples should have a consistent supply of water during the first 2 or 3 years after planting. Do not over-water them though. Just make sure to check them during prolonged periods of dry weather and provide them with water as necessary to maintain proper health. Established trees can withstand considerable dry spells and periods of drought with no problems at all, but young trees may dry up and die under the same circumstances. Water problems during the early years of establishment, whether it be a lack of or too much water, is the number one killer of young trees.

Few pests or diseases afflict Japanese maples, and no regular spraying or controls are indicated.

There are several groups of Japanese maples to choose from with most falling into either of these two categories:

Where to Plant a Japanese Maple?

Japanese maples are perhaps the best plant to use as a focal point. When selecting a location for a Japanese maple, avoid planting them too close to other trees or large shrubs where they may become crowded out and lost in the mix. Also avoid planting too many Japanese Maples of the same variety or color in your landscape as these are beautiful trees that are most valuable as a focal point specimen.

When designing a landscape we will usually keep it to one red leaf and one green leaf variety in one setting or view, such as the front or back yard. There are the enthusiastic collectors though. We have a friend that has over 30 varieties in his back yard alone! He's got them spaced properly and there is a good mix of other plant material to keep things interesting.

Lace-leaf Varieties (dissectums) - Plant the lace-leaf dissectums as a specimen in smaller beds to accentuate an entry way, or in rock, patio, or water garden setting as a the feature plant. We usually underplant dissectum Japanese maples with a mat-forming groundcover such as Blue Star Creeper or Dwarf Mondo grass. AVoid underplanting laceleafs with shrubs. Most lace-leaf varieties will grow between 5 and 10 feet wide - keep this in mind. Note: Plant them in full sun or shade. The lace-leaf varieties will appreciate a little shade in the afternoon though this is not absolutely necessary. Plant in a well-drained site.

Palmate Varieties (Upright) - Plant these taller and larger growing varieties as a specimen in beds or islands or to frame an entryway or corner of a home or structure. Full sun is okay however, in the South, some afternoon shade is preferred. Give plenty of thought to where you will place the tree. A well-placed Japanese maple can make a landscape. A not-so-well placed Japanese maple can go unnoticed. Consult with a local professional designer if you need some ideas for placement. Underplant with groundcover such as Ivy, Big Blue liriope, Mondo grass, or low growing shrubs such as Harbour Dwarf nandina, dwarf gardenia or Soft Touch holly to name a few. Plant in a well-drained site.

TIP: Scatter a few boulders near your Japanese maple and watch how much this brings the foliage and texture out. The Japanese always include rock in their garden designs.

Planting a Japanese Maple

Japanese maples are easy to grow when planted properly. The trick is to plant them in a "raised mound" so the roots will never stand in water too long. Over-saturated and consistently wet soil can be a killer.

Planting a Japanese Maple in a Pot/Container

When planting in a container there are three things to think about:


Select a large container that will provide enough room for roots to grow over a long period of time. You don't want to have to transplant your Japanese maple to a larger container too soon.

Spend some time thinking about where you want to place the container. You will be planting the tree in the container where it will sit. The container could be quite heavy after planting and difficult to move. You can place your container in full sun, however some afternoon shade would be appreciated.

Use a lightweight professional potting soil blended 50/50 with a heavier grade potting or planting soil. Avoid using native dirt as this may retain too much water.

Follow instruction in: Planting in Containers.

  1. Size of container needed
  2. Where you will place the container
  3. Type of soil mix
Caring for a Japanese Maple

Japanese maples require very little maintenance. They are not prone to insect or disease problems with the exception of the Japanse beetle and these rarely do much damage. If you feel that you must spray for Japanese beetles do so using a light mix of Liquid Sevin spray. Spray early in the morning to allow solution to dry on leaves before the sun is too high.

Watering - When watering your new tree make sure not to splash water on the leaves during the heat of the day as this could cause unsightly scalding and force the tree to use more energy to replace damaged leaves. Be careful not to over-water a Japanese maple. During the first 2 to 3 years keep an eye on your tree during periods of drought. Provide water when needed. Mulch can help to retain moisture during the summer months however be careful not to apply mulch too thick. Wood mulches should be applied at no more than 2" depth.

Fertilization - We usually fertilize Japanese maples after new growth has emerged in spring. We either use organic compost or a light applictaion of a slow-release shrub and tree food.

Pruning - Japanese maples may be pruned during the winter months. We don't like to do any major cutting on mature trees, just a stray, unsightly branch here or there. Remember, Japanese maples are meant to look natural - avoid pruning them in a formal shape. Consult with, or hire an arborist if you have any reservations. Major pruning is best accomplished when the tree is young. We often limb up lace leaf and palmate varities so that some trunk will show. Any suckers that grow up from the base or below the graft can and should also be removed.

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