The Japanese Maple Tree

by Emi Noguchi

For centuries, Japanese botanists have cultivated momiji—the Japanese Maple tree—so prolifically that today, some estimate that it now has about 1000 varietals! Though this brief glance won’t allow a study of every tree in the forest, we will take a look at some remarkable specimens: from the strikingly red branches on the Coral Bark Maple to the enormously popular burgundy foliage of the Bloodgood Japanese Maple. And while we will talk Dwarf Japanese Maple, no examination of the Japanese Maple would be complete without investigating its even smaller miniature: the Japanese Maple Bonsai.

 The Japanese Maple

Despite the geographical implications of its common name, the Japanese Maple has native populations in Taiwan and China to the Korean peninsula, parts of Russia, and even Mongolia. They were first brought to Europe in the 1700s, when a Swedish naturalist first encountered the Japanese Maple tree and subsequently dubbed it Acer palmatum for the tree’s “hand-like” leaves. By 1820 they were introduced to England, and in 1880 the first Japanese Maple tree was planted in the public garden and arboretum of Harvard University. Today, Japanese Maple lovers in temperate climates across the world can grow whichever tree suits their needs: dappled shade, a pop of color in a small garden, a delicate shrub, or a specific shape to set against a companion planting of nearly any type. Not to mention, the ultimate horticultural clock! These trees are set each year to mark the arrival of autumn with a riot of color.

The Dwarf Japanese Maple and the Bonsai

The aforementioned Dwarf Japanese Maple is perhaps the quintessential Japanese Maple tree. Because they typically grow to just 3-10 feet tall with leaves in a huge variety of shapes, colors, and even textures, the Dwarf Japanese Maple can slip in beneath a larger growth tree or strike a pose as the setpiece in a small-scale garden. Shrinking further still, the Japanese Maple bonsai is beloved for its stunning show of tiny, autumnal red folliage. That said, the world of the Japanese Maple contains a great number of varietals bred for different sizes; the art of bonsai, (pronounced “bone-sigh”), on the other hand, requires no particular breeding of its trees. Whatever size their raw materials, the bonsai gardener uses a variety of root, leaf, and branch pruning and constriction to miniaturize them. Bonsai enthusiasts have found willing subjects in the Japanese Maple tree, thanks to its naturally compact root system and tolerance of all manner of soils, confinement, shade, and even elevation. And of course, because of its extraordinary display of fall color, the Japanese Maple bonsai makes for a highly anticipatory gardening experience!

Bloodgood Maple Family Connections

The sheer number of Japanese Maple cultivars means that a significant number of variants is based on other variants. Take, for instance, the “Shaina,” a Dwarf Japanese Maple. Its foliage is soft, lush cascades of maroon or crimson, depending on the season. Experts in all things Japanese Maple identify the Shaina as the Dwarf Japanese Maple version of the Bloodgood Japanese Maple. The Shaina will only grow to about five feet tall, but the Bloodgood Japanese Maple can reach fifteen to twenty-five. Because of both its striking burgundy foliage and hardiness across planting locations, the Bloodgood Japanese Maple is a favorite among many gardeners, even if it grows slowly. It can grow fairly wild without intervention or be pruned as the gardener desires. Regardless, the Bloodgood Japanese Maple has an ordinarily dark foliage that, once autumn has arrived, becomes a showstopping scarlet. 

Speaking of Reds

Our final two varietals of the Japanese Maple are the Coral Bark Maple and the rather vaguely named Japanese Red Maple. Each is notable for its extraordinary color: in the case of the Coral Bark Maple, the red lies in the bark (as the name suggests). In a sea of autumnal foliage, the leaves of the Coral Bark Maple—or Sango kaku—blaze brilliant yellow, red branches occasionally visible like brush strokes on a page. In the summer, its foliage returns to a fresh green, delightful opposite to its namesake coral bark. 

Maple trees are celebrated for their showy autumn foliage, and, as this name also suggests, the Japanese Red Maple is no exception. It is, perhaps, the ultimate in fall reds. Given ample shade, the Japanese Red Maple (A. palmatum var. atropurpureum) can hover along the red-scarlet spectrum all year. Without shade coverage from an upper story tree—a challenge if this Japanese Maple reaches its maximum twenty-five feet tall—the Japanese Red Maple will fade and even turn green in the heat of summer. Come autumn, it will transform into the kind of Japanese Red Maple that prompts annual pilgrimages in Japan for kouyou, or leaf-viewing. Keep an eye out for your local Japanese Maple Event. If it’s a summery green, this tree has a show for those who wait.

Author Bio

Emi Noguchi is a fiction writer, blogger, and freelance writing instructor, and co-founder of MFA App Review. After studying standard Japanese at Columbia University, she picked up Kansai-ben while living in Osaka and some Awa-ben in her paternal hometown in Tokushima. Emi is a 2020 recipient of the John Weston Award and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona. You can read her work in Essay Daily, The Spectacle, and Fairy Tale Review. Emi is currently writing a novel about diasporic illnesses, art-making, and traditional Japanese puppetry.