It's hard to miss Japanese maples in autumn; clear skies and cold nights paint their leaves with flaming hues of gold, orange, red, and yellow. Because these airy, delicate trees love mild summers and cool winters, they are especially at home along the Pacific Coast, from British Columbia, western Washington, and Oregon to Northern California.
Fall colors for some varieties of Acer palmatum may not be as intense in the mildest parts of Southern California. But gardeners there and in the high desert can grow them by providing the right conditions ― filtered shade, protection from wind, and occasional flooding to leach salts from the soil.
Our favorites are listed on the following pages. But any Japanese maple makes a graceful accent in gardens, in pots, or as prunings in holiday arrangements.
Maples for fall color
Japanese maples grow in Sunset climate zones 2-10, 12, 14-24: everywhere except hot low deserts and the coldest-winter areas.
Green leaves become yellow in autumn. 25 feet tall.
Yellow-green spring leaves darken in summer, then intensify into yellow or orange. 6 feet tall.
Green leaves shift to yellow-orange in fall. 18 feet tall and wide.
• 'Koto no ito'
Green summer leaves turn yellow, gold, or even yellow-orange. Slow growing to 8 feet tall and wide; upright form.
• 'Sango Kaku'
Coral red bark is most intense on young wood in winter. Foliage is golden green in summer; yellow in fall, with apricot and light red highlights. To 25 feet.
Spring leaves are purple-tinged red; in summer, they're green; and in autumn, pumpkin to crimson. 15 feet tall.
Leaves open orange-red, turn red-green for summer, and become orange in autumn. 9 feet tall, 8 feet wide; weeping form.
Blackish red through summer with no bronzing, then crimson in autumn. 30 feet tall and wide.
The most intensely colored Japanese maple, it has green leaves turning furnace red in autumn. 25 feet tall and wide; round-topped.
Plants for pots
Japanese maples make sensational container plants. Grow them in pots that are about half as deep as they are wide.
Try one of the following four varieties ― all are widely adapted and tolerate heat and wind, traits that are especially important in the Southwest's higher elevations and in much of Southern California.
In fall, green leaves shift to gold. A dwarf offspring of 'Sango Kaku', it has this parent's coral red bark, which shows best in winter. Can reach 6 feet tall, 4 feet wide.
New growth is tinged with red; green summer color; yellow-orange with red highlights in fall. Hardy to 0°. 3 feet tall and wide in 10 years.
• 'Mikawa Yatsubusa'
This maple's many trunks radiate out like stems on a candelabra. In fall, its foliage ignites in a blaze of orange. Grows slowly to 3 feet high and wide in a container.
• 'Sharp's Pygmy'
Green leaves turn deep orange to scarlet in autumn. 2 to 3 feet tall and wide.
Where to find plants
Though most nurseries and garden centers sell at least a few Japanese maples, there are more than a thousand varieties on the market. If you can't find what you want locally, try a specialist or a mail-order source. Here are some of our favorites.
Mendocino Maples Nursery, Mendocino, CA (707/937-1189)
Mountain Maples, Laytonville, CA (888/707-6522)
Whitney Gardens & Nursery, Brinnon,WA (800/952-2404)
Wildwood Farm, Kenwood, CA (888/833-4181)