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The World of Japanese Maples

April 2, 2018

Written by Dave G.

Spring brings life back to our deciduous trees, and the delicate unfolding leaves are beautiful, no matter what the tree. But the most beautiful of all are undoubtedly the new leaves of Japanese Maples. As spring turns into summer, the leaves expand fully, and again, in Japanese Maples their form and coloring make them stand out. When fall rolls round, it is Japanese Maples that we most often admire, and even in winter the delicacy of their branches is charming. Of all the trees in our gardens, none are more beautiful – or more diverse – than these trees, whatever form they take.

A Diversity of Forms

The most remarkable thing about Japanese Maples is their diversity. From tiny, slow-growing bushes that are ‘instant bonsai’, to large trees 30 feet tall, the range of sizes available is enormous. You can furnish every level of your garden with them, from small shrubs to shade trees. No only do they vary in height, they vary in habit too. Some are upright, like most other trees, while some are broad and spreading. A very popular group of forms have pendulous branches, which can be simply arching, or completely pendulous, hanging vertically unless staked to give some height. Others are irregular, with tufted clusters of branches.

Some varieties grown for their form include:

A Diversity of Colors

One of the most popular features of Japanese Maples is the coloring of their leaves. Leaf color can, and usually does, vary between spring, early summer, late summer and fall. Spring colors are often delicate, featuring pinks and pale greens. In summer purple leaf forms are popular, and the best keep that color all summer, without fading to dark green. Fall is almost always a fireworks display, with colors varying from gold to reds, oranges and purples – sometimes all on the same tree.

Some varieties of special interest for their foliage coloring are:

Butterfly Japanese Maple – a small tree reaching possibly 12 feet tall in time, and 8 feet wide, but usually smaller. This tree is renowned for its unique foliage. The soft-green leaves are edged in white, which is brushed with pink on newly-opening spring leaves. The irregular white edges brighten a partially-shaded corner of the garden in summer, and in fall they take on brilliant tones of scarlet and magenta, ending the season with a color explosion. Always bright and eye-catching, this variety is a real conversation piece.

A Diversity of Leaf Shapes

From far away we notice the overall form, and the leaf colors, of Japanese maples. On closer inspection we see the delicate leaves, which are also very variable in form. The basic leaf form of the usual Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, is like a hand, with long lobes starting at least in the middle of the leaf, if not deeper. These vary from 5 to 11 in number, with smaller ones on the outside and the longest one in the center. The edges of the leaf, all along the lobes, is serrated into small teeth.

However there are many, many variations on this basic form, usually involving lobes cut more deeply, often almost to the leaf stalk, and elongated serrations, which make the lobes look jagged and lace-like. The lobes too can be broad or narrow. Sometimes the narrowest forms are described as a variety, ‘dissectum’, but with all sort of gradations of form, most experts today ignore this name.

Generally, forms with the narrowest, most lacy leaves can be tricky to grow through the summer. A little drought, or a hot, drying wind, can cause the leaves to shrivel and brown. This can be disappointing, but when it happens later in summer it does little harm to the tree, since growth has more or less stopped by then for the season. It does end any chance of fall color, but many people consider their beauty in spring and early summer to be worth the price – and perhaps it is!

Some Varieties with outstanding leaf forms:

Comments 5 comments

  1. April 13, 2020 by Roland Hairston

    I want to plant a flowering tree/bushes in the area between my walkway and house. Area 1 is 80 inches from the garage wall to the walkway and area 2 is 8 feet deep from the house to the edge of the bed. Both are on the front of the house

    What would you suggest? I was thinking of a Japanese maple but I don’t want it to get too large.

    I need some color near the house.

    I am also thinking of 2 Japanese maples in the island in front of the house.

    I live in Mcdonough, GA; south of Atlanta.

    Thanks

    1. April 14, 2020 by Dave G

      If you look at our Japanese maple selection, you should see some that would fit your space – they can also be pruned a little.

  2. April 13, 2020 by Robby

    Which maple is in the photo?

    1. April 14, 2020 by Dave G

      Sorry, not sure. You see old trees like that, but they are rarely labelled unless they are in botanic gardens.

  3. May 1, 2020 by Donna Rooks

    I want 2