The garden Guru

Japanese Maple

Its glory dazzles year-round, even in the heart of winter

By Cheryl Capaldo Traylor


The beloved Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) has been celebrated in prose and poems for centuries. The late critic and writer Clive James memorialized this special tree in his valedictory farewell poem “Japanese Maple,” where he muses on the cycle of life and his approaching death. Of the tree in his garden he writes:

Come autumn and its leaves will turn to flame.
What I must do
Is live to see that.

Those of us who have one in our gardens fully understand James’ sentiment. These magnificent trees enhance our lives as much as they enhance our gardens and we eagerly look forward to their stunning autumn splendor year after year.

While it may seem strange to sing the praises of deciduous trees in the heart of winter, especially trees known and celebrated for their dramatic autumn colors, I would argue it’s also the perfect time. In the winter landscape, you see, it’s the bones of the tree that shine. Without foliage, the Japanese maple’s unique branching patterns and contorted limbs are on full display, and the appealing bark color of some cultivars is a true sight to behold. To happen upon the intense red winter branches of a coral bark maple (A. Palmatum “Sango-kaku”) reaching upward in contrast to a Carolina blue sky, for instance, is more than just a beautiful scene. It’s a sacred experience. And late winter also happens to be the perfect time to plant one, two or three in your garden.

Other Acer (meaning “maple” in Latin) species are also known by the common name Japanese maple, including A. japonicum and A. shirasawanum. Over one thousand cultivars and varieties come from these Eastern Asian natives, providing countless variations and the promise of a tree that is sure to appeal to even the fussiest of gardeners. I’ve not met anyone immune to its charm.

The species’ epithet, palmatum, from the Latin “shaped like a hand,” refers to the leaf with five or more fingers, or lobes. Leaf shape offers a dizzying array of variety. Some are lacy, deeply dissected and delicate-looking. Others are broad and have a fairly typical maple-leaf shape. In spring, new foliage emerges in a range of colors: yellow, green, red, purple and variegated. Flowers are not showy, but appear as small puffs that later turn into winged seeds known as samaras. You may remember the whirling-twirling helicopters we chased around the yard in childhood. Japanese maples comprise a diversity of forms, including vase-shaped, weeping or cascading, and compact. Some of the smaller cultivars like A. palmatum “Orangeola” and A. palmatum “Butterfly” make excellent container plants, as long as they have proper drainage.

Despite their delicate appearance and finicky reputation, Japanese maples are particularly long-lived, and if given appropriate conditions and care, they will reward you for many autumns to come.

A few growing tips: Plant October through February in organically rich, well-drained soil. Site in sun to filtered shade. Mulch well after planting to keep soil moist and cool, especially in our sizzling southern summers. Keep watered during dry spells, but be careful not to overwater (they do not tolerate wet feet). Pruning, if needed at all, is best done in late winter. And since each cultivar has specific growing requirements, do your research before you purchase.

Noninvasive root systems allow for companion planting with perennials, annuals and bulbs. Place individual specimens around the garden as focal points, or try planting groups of different colors and textures to create an astonishing display. The endless possibilities of these landscape darlings are quite vast and thrilling. From the tried-and-true classic “Bloodgood” to the recently introduced Velvet Viking (A. palmatum var. dissectum “Monfrick”), there is an Acer palmatum for every garden. Be forewarned, once you’ve planted your first Japanese maple you’ll be hooked. Your garden will be fuller, your bank account emptier. Alas, the struggle is real for serious gardeners. With its outstanding form, elegant texture and variety of dramatic colors year-round, this horticultural marvel guarantees four seasons of beauty and nonstop pleasure in every garden it graces.

Clive James was right. Although there is much to love about this extraordinary tree, the highlight has to be the flaming symphony of foliage colors that crescendos in autumn.   h

Cheryl Capaldo Traylor is a writer, gardener, reader and hiker. She blogs at Giving Voice to My Astonishment (

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