How to Select the Right Japanese Maple

Graceful and elegant, Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are an excellent addition to most gardens. Essentially carefree once established, they offer year-round interest with their ever-changing beauty. From the sculpture of bare winter branches to the flush of spring leaves in colors from red to pink to green, followed by lush summer growth, and finally, a big finish in the fall, they’re one of the most compelling plants you can add to your landscape (or terrace, patio, or courtyard, too–remember, some can grow in large pots).

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To figure out which maple is right for your garden, consider these four factors:

Zone:  Most Japanese maples do well in zones 5 – 8. They can be grown in higher zones, but can suffer from leaf scorch and require ample regular summer irrigation and protection from hot afternoon sun. In Zone 4, Japanese maples are simply not reliable in the garden. It’s possible for them to survive a year or two if the winter lows aren’t too severe, but sooner or later, they will succumb to weather. They can, however, be grown in containers and, once dormant, overwintered in an unheated garage or other cool, sheltered location. A better option might be a Korean maple which is equally lovely and hardy to zone 4.

Size and Form: Choosing the right one means knowing how you want to use it. Japanese maples range from 2 to 30 feet tall in forms that can be weeping, rounded, dwarf, mounding, upright, or cascading. Are you looking to create a grove of Japanese maples? Maybe create a spotlight with a solitary specimen? Do you want to fill a large container? Or perhaps a taller Japanese maple as the main attraction?

Leaf Shape: Decide which type of foliage appeals to you. Once you’ve got the size and form figured out, think about foliage. Japanese maple foliage is primarily divided into two types: either palm-shaped (Acer palmatum), or delicate and lacy (Acer palmatum var. dissectum). There are fans of both types, and the choice is often informed by the style of the garden or the surrounding structures.

Leaf Color:  What color of foliage appeals most? With a range of foliage colors–red, green, orange, purple, white, and pink depending on the season–Japanese maples are among the most colorful of trees. 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 autumn. Do you want a sequence of changing color from spring to fall or do you just really love rich, dramatic red throughout the seasons?

Once you have a handle on these considerations, it’s time to see some options!  It’s always best to visit your local garden center to get the best possible information on what grows very well in your specific region.

To get you started here are some of our favorite Japanese maples divided by size and suggested ways to use them as well as care and planting info.

This is a considered purchase, so if you have questions or need more specific advice, please use the comments section.

Best for Small Spaces and Containers

Some Japanese maples are either naturally dwarf, or grafted onto rootstock that keeps them small for years (even decades if you’re into pruning), or simply very slow-growing. These offer the opportunity to have a spectacular specimen that you can grow in a container or in a confined space. Choose carefully and avoid issues later by only selecting those that max out at no more than 10 ft. tall and wide at maturity.

Shaina Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Dwarf, compact form that becomes dense with maturity. New foliage emerges bright red, aging to deep maroon. Partial shade to full sun. Up to 8 ft. tall and wide.

Kagiri Nishiki Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Unique pink and white irregular border on the light green leaves. Slow-growing it’s ideal for smaller courtyards. Partial shade to full sun. Up to 8 ft. tall and 4 ft. wide.

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Red Dragon Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Beautiful, deeply dissected purple leaves turn bright apple red in fall. Slow growing and perfectly sized for containers. Partial to full sun. Up to 5 ft. tall and wide.

Best for Grouping or Statement

While we often see them carefully situated as stand alone specimens, especially in Asian-inspired gardens, in the wild Japanese maples grow in groups as understory plants in shady woodland spaces. You can get the same effect in your own garden by mixing several different types, shapes, and sizes ranging from about 10 ft. tall and above. While each will need ample room to grow, plant close enough so their branches can intermix. Magic!

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Shishigashira Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Heavily curled foliage becomes purple-red with orange-red patterns in fall. Less likely to sunburn than other varieties. Partial to full sun. Up to 15 ft. tall and 10 ft. wide.

Acer palmatum Inaba-shidare

Inaba Shidare Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Cascading, but slightly more upright than other dissected-leaf form varieties, with outstanding reddish-purple color. Partial shade to full sun. Up to 15 ft. tall and wide.

Fireglow Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Smaller than ‘Bloodgood’ with a upright habit that’s lovely with other mid-sized Japanese maples. Partial shade to partial sun. Up to 10 ft. tall and wide.

Best for One Big WOW

If you have a spot that needs both height and drama, a Japanese maple that tops about at about 25 ft. tall might be just what you’re looking for. While still relatively small as trees go, they’re big on the wow factor due to their shape, foliage, bark, or often all of the above. These three are best used where they can stand alone without other trees or large shrubs competing for attention. As with all trees, pay careful attention (believe the label!) to mature size.

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Ryusen Weeping Japanese Maple
Zone 5 – 7

Unique, weeping form with rapid growth that shoots straight up and cascades down. Excellent for narrow spaces. Partial shade to full sun. Up to 20 ft. tall and 6 ft. wide.

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Bloodgood Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Foilage opens red, turns brilliant-scarlet in fall, and blackish-red bark is a winter standout. Excellent small lawn tree. Filtered to full sun. Up to 20 ft. tall and 15 ft. wide.

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Osakazuki Japanese Maple
Zone: 5 – 8

Bright green summer leaves become brilliant crimson red in fall, holding color for several weeks. Lovely specimen tree. Partial to full sun. Up to 25 ft. tall and wide.

Japanese maples need:

  • While some can tolerate full sun, Japanese maples prefer dappled or afternoon shade, especially when young. Shade does have it’s limits though–they need some sun for best foliage color and to promote the more loose and open structure for which they are prized.
  • Protection from strong winds.
  • Well-drained, consistently moist soil–during extreme heat or drought, give them a little extra water.
  • Protection from late spring frosts, especially when young.

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