The versatile Japanese maple

The Japanese maple provides year-round seasonal interest.

The versatile Japanese maple

Well, spring has finally arrived and with it a barrage of seasonal colour from the usual suspects, including Camellia, Pieris, Rhododendrons and Azaleas.

But once it passes or fades in the rain, just how much colour do you have left in your garden?

Most of the aforementioned shrubs have green foliage for the rest of the year (including a few variegated forms), but those true hues – the reds, pinks, oranges, purples and yellows – are gone until next spring.

So, what can you plant that will provide year-round seasonal interest be it leaf form, foliage colour, attractive bark or a distinctive winter silhouette?

Look no further than the versatile Japanese maple.

If you don’t believe me, then perhaps we should peruse just a few of the many options available.

For foliage colour, we have hot pink (‘Shirazz’), variegated (‘Butterfly’), glossy purplish-red (‘Trompenburg’), orange (‘Orange Dream’), chartreuse (‘Jordan’), burgundy (‘Fireglow’) and greenish-white (‘Sister Ghost’).

The leaf form includes linear strap-like lobes that sway in the slightest breeze (‘Koto-no-Ito’), finely-cut ferny foliage (‘Red Dragon’), tiny currant-like leaves held in dense clusters (‘Shishigashira’), deeply-cut lobes (‘Burgundy Lace’), coarse-leaved (‘Bloodgood’) and broad claw-like foliage (‘Aconitifolium’). There’s a Japanese maple for full sun (‘Seiryu’), rockeries (‘Sharp’s Pygmy’), containers (‘Shaina’), shade exposures (‘Waterfall’), small spaces (‘Wilson’s Pink Dwarf’) and even for trailing over retaining walls (‘Orangeola’).

In spring, we have intense pink emerging leaves (‘Corallinum’), in the summer heat we have shade-producing burgundy foliage (‘Emperor I’), in autumn we have ordinary-looking green leaves that shift to an intense fire engine red (‘Osakazuki’), and in winter we have bright coral stems that literally glow on those dull winter days (‘Sango kaku’).

There are Japanese maples that grow taller than six metres with an elegant upright vase form (‘Versicolor’), others that can spread just as wide and tumble down a bank (‘Green Cascade’), tiny mop-headed uprights (‘Pixie’), elegant weeping forms with a mushroom-like shape (‘Garnet’) and mid-sized trees that form a near perfect dome which is entirely orange in spring (‘Katsura’).

For those of you not counting, I’ve just mentioned 28 different cultivars of Japanese maples, all of which are worthy of your landscape.

Now for the botanical and cultural details: the common name Japanese maple is used for several species, including Acer palmatum, Acer japonicum (Fullmoon Maple) and Acer shirasawanum (Shirasawa’s Maple).

All Japanese maples require good drainage with porous, organic soil and even planting –  just an inch deep can result in the bark rotting and a deceased tree.

Newly planted specimens almost always develop marginal scorch on the leaves during their first summer, as the foliage transpires more moisture than the young root system is able to provide – but this problem will disappear with time.

Pruning should be done with sharp, sterile secateurs – as ragged cuts just provide an opening for fungal problems and dirty pruners can spread Verticillium (a vascular fungus) between trees. Remove the dead inside branches in late winter (before the leaves emerge), when they are easily visible and the best time to prune for growth reduction is usually sometime in May, when the leaves have fully opened and the sap stops running.

For those of you that would like to learn more on this diverse group of trees and shrubs, I would encourage you to visit and type Japanese maples into the search engine or join me in person at Amsterdam Garden Centre this Saturday (April 26th) at 10 a.m. for a free seminar on “Collecting Japanese maples.”


Mike Lascelle is a local nursery manager and gardening author (hebe_ac