A guide to Japanese maples

All you need to know about Japanese maples
Jim McCausland

The laceleafs

These are the maples with deeply dissected leaves. Usually much wider than they are tall, and characterized by their mushroom shape, most trees have a weeping form that does a nice job cascading over rocks and walls. The delicacy of the leaves makes them vulnerable to heat, wind, and hard water, all of which can burn leaf tips and edges.

Acer palmatum 'Filigree'. Weeping; 7 feet. A classic green laceleaf, with very finely cut leaves. Yellow fall color.

• 'Garnet' (shown at top). Weeping; 10 feet. With fairly intense, nonfading leaf color, this is one of many good laceleafs in the red-to-purple range.

• 'Seiryu'. Upright; 25 to 30 feet. The only upright laceleaf, this has a distinctly feathery green look.

Variegated leaves

Whether their foliage is stippled, marbled, edged, splashed, or striped with white or cream, variegated types can illuminate a lightly shaded corner of the garden. But you have to be careful, since they can scorch in sun or hot winds and turn all green if you give them too much shade or fertilizer.

A. p. 'Butterfly'. Upright; 7 feet. Scorch-resistant and nearly foolproof, this is the one to grow in borderline situations.

• 'Orido nishiki'. Upright; 10 to 15 feet. This fast-growing variety has green leaves variegated with both pink and white.

Vibrant autumn color

Most vigorous and largest of the Japanese maples, this group bears thick, star-shaped leaves that develop the most intense fall color.

A. p. 'Hogyoku'. Upright; 20 feet. Green summer leaves, fiery yellow foliage in fall.

• 'Ichigyoji'. Upright; 20 feet. Green leaves change to crimson in autumn.

• 'Osakazuki'. Upright; 30 feet. Summer leaves are green, autumn leaves a glowing, deep red.

• 'Shishi gashira' (lion's head maple). Spreading; 10 feet. Densely cloaked with crinkled green leaves. Fall color is yellow to golden brown.

Intense spring color

Many Japanese maples splash the garden with color in the spring, when leaves are fresh and almost waxy looking. A few weeks into the season, the colors fade to green or reddish green, then may (or may not) come back in fall.

A. p. 'Shin deshojo'. Spreading; 10 feet. The most spectacular: Brilliant coral-red leaves fade to greenish pink in summer and develop only a little color in fall.

Colored bark

Japanese maples can have wonderfully colored bark, in hues ranging from pea green to orange and pink. Colors tend to intensify in the winter sun (especially on the most exposed side of the tree), and in the coral-barked kinds, colors become more muted when summer leaves shade the bark.

A. p. 'Ao yagi'. Upright; 20 to 25 feet. Green bark and small, bright green leaves that turn yellow in fall.

• 'Sango Kaku' (coral bark maple). Upright; 25 feet. Its bark is yellow-red in summer, coral-red in winter. Green leaves turn gold in fall.

Reliable red-leafed uprights

Not all red-leafed Japanese maples are laceleaf types with weeping habits. Here are two vigorous upright varieties.

A. p. 'Bloodgood'. Upright; 25 feet. One of the toughest Japanese maples, this one holds its red color well even during hot summers.

'Trompenburg' (right). Upright; 30 feet. This one's small, narrow leaves look as though they've been pressed from burgundy patent leather. Fades to reddish green in summer; also comes in an all-green form.

Small-scale trees for containers, bonsai

These dwarf trees take naturally to containers. For serious bonsai, look for one of the small-leafed varieties in the Yatsubusa group.

A. p. 'Beni maiko'. Upright; 4 to 5 feet. A favorite in containers, it has leaves that open brilliant scarlet, then fade to reddish green.

• 'Kashima'. Spreading; 15 feet. This has a natural multiple-trunk bonsai look. Leaves are green.