Flowering time (month)
Ornamental or utility value
fresh to moderately moist
neutral to slightly acidic
The wild form of the Japanese maple (Acer japonicum) originates from the mountain-forests of Japan. There it grows in 200 to 1300 meters of altitude on slightly acid soils in light forests. The game species is hardly available on the market. In our country the variety ‘Aconitifolium’, the so-called wolfsbane Japanese maple, is the most common. Because of its golden yellow, bright red or also dark red autumn colouring it is sometimes called Japanese fire maple, although the fire maple is actually a different species with the botanical name Acer ginnala.
The Japanese maple is known above all because of its picturesque growth with short trunk or multi-stem growth and with young trees at first upright main branches. The older the tree gets, the more expansive it grows. When fully grown, it reaches heights of up to five metres. Frequently, the Japanese maple with its wolfsbane leaves is wider than high in old age and then shows a beautiful, umbrella-shaped crown.
The beautifully shaped leaves of the Japanese maple with its wolfsbane leaves are reminiscent of those of the wolfsbane, but with a length of 14 centimetres they are considerably larger and lobed almost to the base of the leaf with feathered edges. As with all maples, the deciduous leaves are opposite and turn bright orange to wine red in autumn.
The small flowers of the Japanese maple open at the end of April or beginning of May. They have reddish to purple petals and are found in short racemes in the leaf axils. The stamens are conspicuously yellow in colour.
From a botanical point of view, the fruits are so-called nuts and carry – typical for maple – the distinctive fruit wings, colloquially also called propellers. In summer they are bright red until they dry in autumn, break open and sail down from the tree. The propellers ensure that the seeds do not fall to the ground directly under the tree, but have a sloping trajectory. Depending on wind conditions, they often land a few metres away from the mother plant, where they have greater chances of survival.
Japanese maple feels most at home in sunny locations. You should therefore plant it in a southerly position if possible. If the plants are still young and not well ingrown, sunburn may occur on the leaves. This is no big deal, because the tree becomes less and less susceptible over the years. Half shadow is not a problem for the Japanese maple. Nevertheless, it does not form such a beautiful crown at these locations in old age.
Japanese maple grows best on moist and permeable sandy humus soils. It prefers slightly acidic soils and reacts very sensitively to lime.
Loosen the soil 30 to 50 centimetres deep before planting a Japanese maple. If the earth is too loamy, you should improve it: A loose soil structure can be achieved by mixing sand and leaf compost. A mulch layer in the root area ensures that the moisture remains in the soil. Japanese maple can also be cultivated well in a large tub. Choose a flat and wide vessel of at least 20 litres volume.
In dry weather, you must supply the shallow root with water in good time, especially in full sun conditions. In cold winters, young shrubs quickly crack bark when exposed to strong sunlight. As a preventive measure, the trunks and main branches of younger plants should be wrapped in jute strips or shaded with cane mats.
The Japanese maple does not need regular incisions. It forms a beautiful crown by nature and hardly ages even in old age. Above all, do not cut back into the old wood, as this will permanently distort the crown. Disturbing branches should be removed completely in late summer. Cutting measures for crown correction are only recommended for very young plants.
The Japanese maple tolerates cold winters very well, but is somewhat susceptible to late frosts because it sprouts quite early. The crowns of younger plants can be protected with a winter fleece for a short time if there is still a risk of late frost after budding.
Especially in single position the Japanese maple is very good. Planted in groups, its picturesque growth form does not really come into its own. However, it is suitable for loosening up a border of trees and shrubs. Plant it in the front row and slightly offset from the other shrubs. Not only in the garden is the wolfsbane Japanese maple used, planted in large tubs, it also adorns courtyards and parks. In front of evergreen foliage its bright red autumn colour is even more intense. Japanese maples planted with flowering bulb flowers have a very beautiful effect in spring.
In addition to the widespread wolfsbane maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolim’) there are two other recommended varieties which also show a picturesque growth and an intensive autumn colouring:
Japanese maple ‘Aconitifolium’ (left) with fruits and autumn colouring, Japanese maple ‘Vitifolium’ (right) with blossoms
The Acer japonicum ‘Indian Summer’ takes on a golden yellow colour in autumn. It has a weaker growth and is less expansive than the wolfsbane maple. The Japanese maple ‘Vitifolium’ has a strong dark red autumn colour. Its extraordinarily large leaves are similar in shape to vine leaves. This variety grows very rapidly and reaches a maximum height of two metres.
Since all garden forms of the Japanese maple form fertile seeds, the plants in the hobby garden can be reproduced best by sowing. However, one has to live with the fact that the offspring are not varietal and at least partly resemble the wild species. It is best to harvest the ripe seeds in late summer to early autumn (September to October), remove the dry wings and sow the seeds flat in boxes with growing soil. These are then stored in a shady place outdoors, covered with a tube mat and kept evenly moist. The cool winter temperatures and frequent temperature changes result in natural stratification, which overcomes the sprout inhibition of the seeds. They usually run up at the end of February/beginning of March and should then be resettled in an unheated greenhouse, where they are protected from late frosts. The potted seedlings are wintered frost-free after the first year of cultivation and can then be planted out in the garden next spring. The true variety reproduction of the garden forms is usually only possible by grafting Japanese maples. This is done either in spring by copulation or in late summer by side plates or tips on potted underlays. The refined Japanese maples are then further cultivated in the greenhouse. The refinement method is quite complex and the growth rates are often not very high – so it should rather be left to the professionals.
Diseases and pests
If the Japanese maple feels well at its location, it becomes ill only in rare cases or infested by pests. Brown or dry leaves, for example, indicate a location that is too windy or too humid. As with many maple species, the Verticillium wilt is also a serious disease in Japanese maple. It is shown by pale leaves that were green and juicy a short time ago and wither quickly, by a cracked bark or apparently groundless branches and shoots. If your Japanese maple is infected with this fungus, you must cut off all infected branches, close the cuttings thoroughly with tree wax and place the tree in a new tub or other place in the garden. It is important that you use fresh soil and remove the previous one as thoroughly as possible. The cuttings are also infested and must under no circumstances be placed on the compost. All garden tools used must be cleaned and disinfected, otherwise renewed infestation cannot be ruled out.
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I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide. I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.