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).
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.
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.