How to grow the Japanese Red Maple


Submitted a year ago
Created by
Henry Homeyer

These are relatively small, very handsome trees

The Japanese red maple (Acer palmatum) is one of my favorite trees. They have deep reddish-purple leaves all summer, and a relatively small size here in the northeast of New England. They tend to spread their arms out, not race skyward like so many other kinds of trees. 

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When I bought my house in 1970 I knew how to grow vegetables, and learned the names of all the native trees as a Boy Scout, but really knew nothing about decorative trees and shrubs, or perennials. But I did love a majestic Japanese red maple that grew on my parents’ property in Woodbridge, Connecticut. So I dug up a 2- or 3-foot tall sapling and brought it to Cornish Flat, NH where it lives today. In 46 years it has gotten to be 11 feet tall and 8 feet wide. The base of the trunk has a 6-inch diameter.

This red maple was planted 46 years ago

Here’s what you need to know about red maples: they like sun, but will take some shade; they may even do best in dappled shade or morning sun only. If the shade is too much, they will have leaves that are a greenish red.

Some 20 years ago I brought up a few very small seedlings and stuck them in the ground in my woods until I found good homes for them. They never really got any bigger, but when I gave one to my partner Cindy, and she planted it in all-day sun, it has thrived and filled out and gotten bigger.

Cindy's red maple is doing well now that it gets sunshine

Japanese red maples do best with rich, well-drained soil, and not an overly dry location. My first one is leaning toward sunshine as a large sugar maple has grown out over the little red, shading it. I have another one I planted just 15 years ago, and it is in good sun much all morning, and is actually a better-looking tree.

'Bloodgood' variety red maple, about 15 years old

My first Japanese red maple has been damaged by cold winters several times, which has kept it much smaller than the mother tree in Connecticut. That tree is, in my mind anyway, 30 or 40 feet tall and wide, and was a great climbing tree when I was a boy. So here in New Hampshire mine is sort of a natural bonsai tree. In Rhode Island I have seen some very nice big ones.

There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of named cultivar. My younger one I know is a ‘Bloodgood’, which is the best, most cold-hardy of the species. Still, the reference texts I use say all varieties are hardy only to Zone 5, or minus 20 degrees. Clearly they survive in Zone 4, and even an occasional Zone 3 winter. My older one survived a couple of days of minus 35 to minus 38 in the 1980’s.

Greeting card made by Chris Essen using a 'dissectum' leaf from a tree in Springfield, VT

In places warmer than this one sees specimens with very finely cut, frilly leaves. Those are included in the ‘dissectum’ variety. They are not nearly as hardy as ‘Bloodgood’ and I, myself, would not spend the money on one – it could die in the first bad winter.

So if you want a nice small tree with gorgeous red leaves all summer, consider the Japanses red maple. I think it’s a winner. 

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