Japanese Maples For Glorious Fall Color

by Keith Hansen

Fall in East Texas is a wonder time of year. Trees of all kinds display a show of yellows, reds, oranges, and purples in all shades and hues. One of my favorite groups of trees for fall color is the Japanese maples.

East Texas has great conditions for growing these Asian beauties – much more favorable than the rest of the State.Our normally sufficient rainfall, acidic soils, and definite 4 seasons combine to provide great conditions for growing one of the most exotic groupsof ornamental trees.

The term Japanese maple refers to a very large group of plants belonging mainly to Acer palmatum and Acer japonicum, although there are other species with similar characteristics. These have been bred and selected for hundreds of years in Japan, and selections from the USA and Europe are also available. They tend to easily mutate, and observant gardeners have been selecting and propagating these new forms for centuries. Hundreds of named varieties are in existence, though usually only a handful, at best, will be available through a local nursery outlet. However, there are specialty mail order nurseries that carry an extensive inventory of the less common types for the maple connoisseur and bonsai enthusiast.

Japanese maples are popular for their architectural form, and their lacy and delicate foliage, along with dramatic foliage colors both in spring and fall, thus making them excellent choices landscape accents and as specimen plants.

One of the more popular forms of Japanese maples are the dissectum, or lace-leaf varieties with deeply divided and dissected leaves. These typically grow less than 15 feet tall, and have weeping and/or twisted branching, resulting in very picturesque plants, especially after the leaves have fallen. The upright forms can grow taller, but rarely get over 30 feet tall. Then there are the dwarf types that are better considered as shrubs, and although not tall, the need room to spread horizontally, All grow slowly, but patience pays off after a few years with a plant that only gets better with age.

All named varieties, or cultivars, are grafted (they can be rooted from cuttings, though growth may not be as vigorous). Seedlings from named varieties, though different from their parents, often have good qualities of their own, and may revert back to a more simple form. Seedlings tend to be more vigorous and tolerant of adverse conditions.

Japanese maples do best, in general, in partial sun, preferably with an eastern sunny exposure to promote leaf coloration, with protection from the western sun. Avoid full sun and sites with reflected heat. When grown in mostly shaded sites, they will not have as intense fall coloration as those receiving more sun. Green-foliaged varieties will tolerate almost full sun, while variegated varieties need even more shade.

Maples must have good drainage. If soil is poorly drained, it should be amended with compost, aged bark, or other organic material to improve drainage, and the soil mounded up above grade at least 3 to 6 inches. This will insure that the crown of the tree will not be in soggy soil. The crown (where the roots and the trunk of the tree meet) should never be below grade.

Frequent, regular watering will get your maple off to a good start. Maples do quite well with regular lawn watering and an occasional deep watering during extended dry times. The University of California did a study indicating that frequent watering in the first year of transplant is the single most effective thing you can do to increase your chance of success in new landscape plantings. Maples are not deep-rooted trees, but rather have a shallow, fine root system.

A layer of mulch 3 or so inches deep of bark or shredded leaves over the soil will help keep the soil temperature moderated and conserve moisture. Be sure to pull the mulch away from the trunk slightly to prevent crown rot and insect damage.

First and second year trees frequently show scorching on the leaf margins, especially the dissectum types. Usually the more exposed they are to the sun, the more marginal burning will be seen. This is not unusual and should cease once the plant is well-established, though some varieties may continue to develop scorched leaf margins in the late summer.

Young trees planted in sunny exposures should have their trunks wrapped the first couple of years with tree wrap. This may also help deter squirrels from stripping bark.

The following are some of the Japanese maple varieties and their characteristics that have been planted in the Tyler Rose Garden, thanks to Smith County Master Gardeners and the Tyler Men’s Garden Club.

  • A. truncatum (Shantung Maple) – 25 – 30 feet tall; full to partial sun; new growth purple cast; shiny dark green summer foliage; attractive fall coloration with mix of colors; tough tree tolerant of adverse soils and conditions; located in the IDEA Garden; a Texas Superstar™
  • ‘Atropurpureum’ (Red Japanese Maple) – Palmatum. Purple-bronze/green leaves, fades to green in summer. Good fall color.
  • ‘Bloodgood’ – Palmatum. Vigorous, upright form; foliage maintains red throughout summer; scarlet in fall; most popular of red-leafed varieties and readily available.
  • ‘Boskoop Glory’ – Palmatum. Red variety, upright to 20 – 25 feet. Holds color well. Purple/red with green in fall.
  • ‘Burgundy Lace’ – Matsumurae. Upright growth to about 20 feet; more finely cut leaves than ‘Atropurpureum’; burgundy red foliage; good fall color.
  • ‘Butterfly’ (‘Kocho nishiki’) – Matsumurae. Small tree to 16 feet; strikingly beautiful variegated leaves with white outline. One of best variegated varieties.
  • ‘Chishio’ – Palmatum. Crimson red spring foliage turning green in summer; orange/red in fall; slow grower; to about 12 feet.
  • ‘Crimson Queen’ – Dissectum. Most popular red dissectum variety; finely cut red leaves hold color throughout growing season; strongly cascading/weeping form so best if grafted high.
  • ‘Ever Red’ (‘Dissectum Nigrum’) – Small mounding form; weeping branches; finely divided leaves; new growth silver grey quickly turning red; bright red fall color.
  • ‘Fireglow’ – Palmatum. Upright tree to about 15 feet; similar to ‘Bloodgood’ but with more intense red color holding well through summer; purple/green fall color.
  • ‘Garnet’ – Dissectum. Red orange foliage (more green in shade); spreading upright to 13 feet; more vigorous than ‘Crimson Queen’ and ‘Ever Red’.
  • ‘Inaba shidare’ – Dissectum. Large leaves; begin purple-red and retain color well; fall color crimson. Upright with cascading habit.
  • ‘O kagami’ – Palmatum. Upright small tree to 15 feet. Purple-red new leaves deepen and turn shiny as mature; red/scarlet fall color.
  • ‘Oshio beni’ – Amoenum. Similar to ‘Atropurpureum’; orange new growth turning red; fall color orange/red.
  • ‘Roseo-marginatum’ (‘Kagiri nishiki’) – Palmatum. Small leaves with margins of pink and white. Upright growth, to 25 feet.
  • ‘Sango kaku’ (Coral Bark) – Palmatum. Bright coral bark outstanding in winter; green leaves with moderate fall color; upright to 25 feet with twiggy growth.
  • ‘Seiryu’ – Dissectum. Unusual upright growth (for dissecutm) to 20 feet; green lacy foliage; fall mix of colors from gold to red.
  • ‘Shaina’ – Palmatum. Dark maroon-red leaves on dwarf tree (to 8 feet) with dense, twiggy growth.
  • ‘Shishigashira’ – Palmatum. Green leaves on short, stout branches results in compact growth habit; fall color is orange. Japanese name means “lion’s mane”.
  • ‘Sumi nagashi’ – Matsumarae. Large, purple-red leaves turn darker red in summer; turning crimson in fall; green bark; bright red sumaras; vigorous semi-upright to 15 feet.
  • ‘Ukigumo’ – Palmatum. Name means “floating clouds” refers to subtle variegation of pastel tones; slow growth; tall shrub.
  • ‘Viridis’ – Dissectum. Bright green lacy leaves on strongly cascading branches; forms rounded shrub; best if grafted high.