What is a Japanese Maple Tree?

C. Ausbrooks

The Japanese maple tree, Latin name Acer palmatum, and also sometimes known as Japanese smooth maple, is native to Japan, China, and Korea. However, there are over 300 different cultivars found growing around the world, prized for their attractive foliage. The woody plant, most commonly found in the understory of shady forests, is generally considered a deciduous shrub, although it can also be a small tree, reaching heights of 20-33 feet (6-10 meters).

Japanese maple trees are prized for their beautiful foliage.
Japanese maple trees are prized for their beautiful foliage.

In appearance, the Japanese maple tree is extremely varied, depending on the hybrid or cultivar. Foliage can range in shape from that of a typical maple leaf, to being very deeply cut, as in the “lace leaf” varieties of the plant. In color, the leaves are light green to deep burgundy, and can grow from 1.5-4.7 inches (4-12 centimeters) in length and width. They are also lobed, and exhibit five, seven, or nine pointed lobes per leaf.

Japanese maple is considered a small tree, but can reach heights of about 33 feet.
Japanese maple is considered a small tree, but can reach heights of about 33 feet.

Multiple trunks connecting close to the ground are a common characteristic of the Japanese maple tree. The flowers are produced individually, and contain five white petals and five red to purple sepals. The fruit of the Japanese maple is a winged samara, or flattened and fibrous dry fruit that is easily transported by the wind. Each samara contains one seed which requires stratification, or pretreatment by humans to simulate natural conditions, before it can germinate.

Japanese maples have been cultivated in Japan for hundreds of years, and were introduced to the rest of the world in the early 1800s. Many different cultivars can be found in local nurseries and garden centers throughout North America and Europe. They are a very popular decorative tree, and can also be used for the art of bonsai. The most favored are the red leaf varieties and the green weeping varieties with deeply cut leaves.

These Japanese trees have a very delicate look, but are actually hardy and durable. They do not often become infested with pests, or damaged by diseases and pollutants. They can easily be grown in zones 4-8 for United States gardeners, and in almost any other temperate location around the world, if given the proper care and attention.

The best conditions for a Japanese maple tree include moist and well-drained soil, partial shade to prevent scorching from the hot sun, or full sun if the weather doesn’t become too hot in the summer. Small dwarf varieties can also be grown in containers in even the smallest spaces. All Japanese maple varieties require yearly fertilization with a slow-release plant food. They also require pruning in the fall or winter, to remove any damaged or dead branches.

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Discussion Comments


@cardsfan27 - You are right, I have heard a lot of people mistake them for marijuana even though it should be pretty apparent that someone wouldn't be planting one of those as a landscape plant.

Now that you know what they are, I'm sure you'll start seeing the other varieties around. The red Japanese maples are definitely more common like you pointed out, but the green ones can be found a lot of places if you pay attention.

Personally, I like the weeping Japanese maples. I got one for my husband to plant a couple of years ago next to our house. It is very easy to trim and makes a very good impression.


I just figured out what a Japanese maple was the other day. For those of you who aren't familiar with them, the leaves almost look like marijuana leaves. I have seen these things planted all over the place, but knew it couldn't be marijuana. Finally, I was walking by one, and it had the little helicopter seeds that look like helicopters, so I knew it had to be a maple of some sort. I started looking around online and figured out that they must be Japanese maple seeds.

I guess it makes sense that they are a popular decorative tree. They are very attractive. It sounds like most of the ones I have seen have been the laceleaf Japanese maples. All of them I have come across have also been the red variety. I didn't even know they could be green.


@stl156 - I would assume that if you just talk to the people at your nursery, they would be able to tell you a general idea of how tall the tree would be when it is mature. Personally, I have never seen a Japanese red maple get to be over 50 feet. Most of the ones I have ever seen have been used close to buildings, so they are trimmed down like bushes to about 15 feet or so.

I was interested to read that you could get Japanese maple bonsai trees. I have been looking into trying my hand at growing a bonsai tree. I had been looking at a couple of different elm trees, because I really like the way their leaves look, but I might have to rethink that.

Has anyone ever had any experience growing a Japanese maple bonsai? Are they difficult to trim and keep alive?


The article mentions that some of the smaller varieties can be about 30 feet. How tall would a regular tree get? Would it be similar in height to a normal yard tree?

I have always like Japanese maples and would like to plant on when we redo the landscaping around our yard next year. What I really would like is a tree that will be around 50 feet or so, which is sort of in the middle of what a full-sized tree would be. I wonder if nurseries would sell trees that are designed to just grow to different heights. Does anyone have any ideas?

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