In Praise of Japanese Maples

By Paul James

For years, I’ve been asked repeatedly, “What’s your favorite plant”? It’s a difficult question to answer, because there are so many incredible candidates. But the other day, while pruning my Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’ bonsai, I came to the realization that my favorite plant – or more specifically plant group – would have to be Japanese maples.

I’ve always been captivated by their amazing diversity in terms of leaf color and shape, range of sizes, and by their many and varied forms, whether upright or weeping. And I’ve always been impressed by how incredibly tough they are, despite their seemingly delicate appearance.

Best of all, perhaps, is the fact that they’re easy to grow, provided you plant them in the right spot to begin with. That means an area where the soil contains a decent amount of organic matter and drains well, and ideally gets just a few hours of morning sun followed by shade the rest of the day, or dappled light throughout the day.

Beyond that, Japanese maples don’t require that much attention. The weeping varieties do need light pruning to remove deadwood in their interior, and the upright forms may need a touch up every other year or so, but it’s best to keep pruning to a minimum. The same is true of fertilizer: Japanese maples simply don’t need much of a nutrient boost beyond a topdressing of compost twice a year, or a light application of a slow-release, low-nitrogen organic fertilizer in spring and fall.

However, because they have shallow root systems, plan on applying a thick – as in 3-inch – layer of bark mulch around the base of each tree to maintain fairly even moisture, something all Japanese maples require.

I could provide you with a long list of species and varieties of Japanese maples I adore, but I won’t. Instead, I would encourage you to discover for yourself the ones you like best, knowing that at the end of the day, you really can’t go wrong with whatever you choose.