Gardening 101: Japanese Maple Trees

Elegant, colorful Japanese Maple trees are so easy to grow they deserve a special place in every garden.

Japanese Maple, japanese maple tree
Photo: Ralph Anderson

Both graceful and versatile, Japanese maple trees (Acer palmatum) are the chameleons of the plant world. Some leaf out in brilliant reds in spring, change to green by summer, and finish the fall in yellows and oranges. Others start red and stay red till their leaves drop in autumn, revealing their sculptural forms. Leaves can be palm-shaped or lacy, almost feathery, and their available color palette includes red, green, orange, purple, white, and pink.

William B. Shell of Auburn, Alabama, is an expert grower. He planted his first tree in 1967 and now has more than 1,000 in his yard. They're his passion. "Japanese maples are an excellent choice for the beginning gardener, as they are essentially carefree once established," he says. "They offer year-round interest with their ever-changing beauty."

Select the Right Japanese Maple Tree

The "trees" range from 2 to 30 feet tall, and their forms can be weeping, rounded, dwarf, mounding, upright, or cascading. Which one's for you? For containers or bonsai: dwarf and smaller selections. For a colorful grouping or a singular show: medium-size, rounded, mounding, or cascading forms. For one big wow: larger, treelike selections. FYI, many are grafted and may seem pricey, but they add value to your landscape and are smart investments. Also, don't be afraid of trying unnamed seedlings, which can be less costly but are just as beautiful.

How to Plant Japanese Maple Trees

These trees can take full sun in the Upper and Middle South, but the rest of us should give them filtered sunlight. They need well-drained soil and protection from hot afternoon sun or strong winds. During extreme heat or drought, give them a little extra water. They make excellent companions for other plants in your yard. William likes to use evergreens such as azaleas and camellias to show off a maple's delicate foliage. Perennials such as hostas and ferns can also accent maples' leaves. Whatever you plant with them, Japanese maples will steal the show.

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