How to Choose the Best Japanese Maple for Your Garden
I may be a little biased, but I truly believe that Japanese maples are the best plants in the world. I often refer to them as royalty in the landscape. Their year-long beauty is jealousy invoking for other plants. There is also unlimited diversity among Japanese maples. So much so that you can literally landscape an entire garden with just Japanese maples. Don’t believe me? Come see us and I’ll give you a tour of our garden with over 150 different kinds of Japanese maples. But with such a diverse selection how on earth do you choose the right Japanese maple for what you need? Follow this guide for a step-by-step solution to selecting the best Japanese maple for your garden every time.
What is your USDA Hardiness Zone?
This is more of a prerequisite question. Japanese maples grow well in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9. That covers a large majority of the United States. I would recommend pretty much everything we grow for these zones. Acer sieboldianum would be the only species of maple that we grow that I would recommend for zone 4. I don’t typically recommend any of the coral or colored bark varieties for zone 5 as they seem to be weakened by harsh winters more than other Acer palmatum varieties. Some of the really durable varieties such as Tamukeyama and Red Emperor can sometimes be stretched to zone 10 under the right circumstances. That being said I recommend the vast majority of Japanese maples for zones 5-9. These zones are also not the end all be all with hardiness as they only take into account average low temperatures in the winter. Hot temperatures in the summer also need to be taken into account when selecting a Japanese maple.
Do you Want an Upright Japanese Maple or a Weeping Japanese Maple?
Probably the biggest delineation when selecting your Japanese maple is whether you want a tree that grows upright toward the sky like a traditional tree, or would you prefer a tree that stays smaller and weeps over with a spreading habit creating a cascading mound? This splits Japanese maples into two main categories for which most people are searching.
Upright Japanese Maples
An upright Japanese maple can grow as tall as 30 feet over a 10–15-year timeframe or can stay as short as about 6 feet tall over that same span. The size range is large but upright growing Japanese maples have a clear shape and structure difference to their weeping counterparts. Upright growing Japanese maples can be used all over the yard, but gardeners must be conscious of their ultimate height as these trees are much more likely to block portions of the house compared the weeping Japanese maples. I prefer upright growing Japanese maples planted out in the yard or near the house in non-window obstructing situations. Popular examples of upright growing Japanese maples are Bloodgood, Sango kaku, and Tsukasa silhouette.
Weeping Japanese Maples
Weeping Japanese maples typically max out around 10 feet tall with most of them only reaching about 6 feet over a 10-year span. These trees have much more lateral, spreading growth and can spread about as wide as they are tall. This often forms a mounding shrub like look when left unpruned. While the upright growing Japanese maples often have a strong, firm branching structure, the weeping Japanese maples will have a soft, flowing look that provides a different look and feel to the landscape. Like with any other Japanese maple, weeping Japanese maples can be used all over the landscape wherever they have space to grow. I usually prefer weeping Japanese maples near the house because they do not block nearly as much of the house. Weeping Japanese maples look especially nice in corner beds. Popular examples of weeping Japanese maples are Crimson Queen, Viridis, and Red Dragon
What Color Japanese Maple do you Want?
This is another big categorical question. By far the most common colors for Japanese maples are red and green with red being the most popular. That being said there are hundreds of varieties of red Japanese maples with variations in red color in addition to every size and shape imaginable. There are other color options as well, but let’s start with the more common options.
Red Japanese Maples
If you’re looking for a red Japanese maple, there are a few things you need to know. First, it likely will not remain red for the entirety of the summer. This is very weather and zone dependent, but most red Japanese maples fade to some semblance of green during the hot summer months. There are also a multitude of shades of red that these Japanese maples can portray. When I think of red Japanese maples I think of their color on a spectrum from orange to purple with all of these red Japanese maples falling somewhere on that spectrum from orange-red to dark maroon. The majority of red Japanese maple varieties maintain some variation of red color throughout the year with darker colors in the spring, washed out near green colors in the summer, and bright red colors in the fall. However, there are a few varieties that will show out with oranges and yellows in the fall. I always find that particularly interesting for a red Japanese maple variety. Moonfire is one of the best upright red varieties at holding its red color into the summer while Garnet is a good weeping red variety. Red Pygmy is a fun red Japanese maple that turns golden yellow in the fall.
Green Japanese Maples
Green Japanese maples usually stay pretty consistent from spring to summer. The shade of green may change throughout the growing seasons, but the general color doesn’t change much. Fall is where the green varieties distinguish themselves and really make an impact. Green Japanese maple varieties can have fall color ranging from bright yellow to an array of oranges to bright red and everything in between. Some varieties like Elegans or Green Cascade can even have all these colors spread across the foliage at the same time.
Variegated Japanese Maples
Other color options can include variegated varieties that will have multiple colors on the leaf in the spring, typically some variation of pinks and whites. These variegated varieties still pretty much fall in line with either the red or green categories though as they will have the variegated colors on either a base red leaf or a base green leaf. Shirazz and Geisha Gone Wild are examples of red variegated Japanese maples while Butterfly and Beni shichihenge are excellent examples of green variegated varieties.
Yellow Japanese Maples
There are also Japanese maples with yellow color in the spring that typically transition to light green in the summer. These are mostly upright growing Japanese maples and provide excellent contrast with the red varieties. Katsura, Summer Gold, and Orange Dream are great examples of yellow Japanese maples.
What Japanese Maple Leaf Shape do you Prefer?
The two main types of Japanese maple leaves are broad leaves and lace leaves. The broad leaf types have fat, hand shaped leaves. The lace leaf varieties have delicate dissected leaves. The broad leaves are typically seen on the upright growing Japanese maples while the lacy leaves are usually seen on the weeping Japanese maples. These are broad generalities, but there are some exceptions to these rules. Seiryu is a lace leaf exception that grows upright while Ryusei is a broad leaf exception that has a weeping growth habit.
These are the two main leaf shapes, but there are other options as well. Matsumurae type Japanese maples have leaves that I describe as being a cross between the broad and the lace leaf shapes. These leaves have an overall broad shape, but can be thinner than most broad leaves. These leaves also usually have serrated sides which are reminiscent of the lace leaf style. JJ Fire Red is an example of this leaf shape. Linearlobum type Japanese maples have long, narrow leaves and come sometimes even be string-like. Beni otake is one of our favorite linearlobum type Japanese maples.
How much Sun will your Japanese Maple be Exposed to?
We typically divide sun exposure into three broad buckets. Six or more hours of sun qualifies as full sun exposure, two to six hours of sun would be categorized as partial sun, and less than two hours of direct sun would qualify as a shady spot. This is a broad categorization of sun exposure and should be used as a starting point in determining your sun requirements. Your zone is going to greatly impact the type of sun requirements for your Japanese maples. Japanese maples are going to be able to handle more sun in lower zones where the sun is not as hot and brutal as in higher zones. The time of day for sun exposure is also critical. Morning sun is not nearly as oppressive as the hot mid afternoon sun. Each variety of Japanese maple has its own sun requirements that you need to be cognizant of when making your decision. These requirements can be stretched and pushed, but you do need to be aware of them.
How Big do you Want your Japanese Maple to Ultimately get?
The final question is how large you want your Japanese maple to ultimately get? Huge disclaimer here right off the bat. Trees such as Japanese maples are never going to stop growing. They will slow down once they reach a certain point of maturity, but as long as they are alive and healthy, they will continue to grow. Therefore, we must use a certain timeframe when discussing mature size. We almost exclusively use a 10-year period.
After narrowing down your search with all of the other qualifications above you should just need to determine the size you want your tree to grow into. There should be a multitude of sizes that should work within your other classifications. For instance Lozita, Fireglow, Moonfire, and Red Emperor are all similar trees in appearance but differ in their mature height range with Lozita being the smallest and Red Emperor being the largest.
I hope you enjoyed this quick primer on the thought process I go through when suggesting Japanese maples for people. The website should soon be able to help you through this same decision-making process. With hundreds of varieties of Japanese maples available it helps to go through a process of elimination so feel free to ask yourself the questions in this article to help you decide on the next Japanese maple for your yard.