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Many people are surprised to learn that Japanese maples are available in an incredible variety of leaf colors and forms, as well as a wide range of growth habits and sizes.
While that’s great in terms of choices, trying to communicate about Japanese maple can be difficult: You mean the one with the incredibly split lobes?” That’s not it. Who’s got the blade with the razor-sharp edges? No…”
In the minds of maple tree connoisseurs, there are only two types: upright and weeping. It is necessary to be able to explain these plants in greater detail in order to fully comprehend this complex and ever-evolving group of organisms.
Because of this, experts on Japanese maples have classified them into 17 distinct subcategories.
To help you get started cultivating Japanese maples, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide.
In addition to providing information on a few representative plants from each category, this guide explains the various classifications in further detail. What lies ahead is as follows:
If you thought that the major difference between Japanese maples was their growth habit and size, you’re in for a real treat! Let us now begin.
How Japanese Maples Are Categorized
There are a lot of mislabeled Japanese maples out there if you’ve ever purchased one.
There are a number of trees that are labeled incorrectly in many places that will stay unidentified, so I decided to check them out.
I felt horrible for the customers who bought a tree that was marketed as having red foliage, only to realize that the foliage turns green in the summer after they plant it.
An apparent gap in the Japanese maple world has led to some uncertainty in the labeling of Japanese maples. The Maple Society welcomes new members to join its ranks. Atropurpureums that are correctly labeled will remain red all summer long if you use their system.
New cultivars of the Acer genus are registered by the Maple Society, a UK-based organization that draws from botanists and Japanese maple experts throughout the world.
A technique developed by recognized experts Cor van Gelderen and nurseryman Benoit Choeau has been used to divide the Japanese maples into 17 distinct groupings.
These plants may come from one of the several Acer species native to Japan, which makes this method very useful.
In addition to A. palmatum, you’ll find A. japonicum, A. capilipes, A. shirasawanum, and their hybrids.
J.D. Vertrees, a well-known entomologist, grower, and educator in Oregon, is widely regarded as one of the West’s foremost authorities on Japanese maples. He first divided the species into seven broad classifications.
Today, the Maple Society uses five of his categories, along with a dozen additional ones. Amoenum, dissectum, linearilobum, matsumurae, and palmatum are the five categories that overlap between Vertrees’ and the Maple Society.
In addition, Vertrees included all dwarf plants under the umbrella term “other.”
Leaf lobe division, variegation, and coloration all play a role in both classification systems.
If you’re not familiar with these phrases, here’s a quick refresher course:
- Leaf lobes are finger-like extensions that spread outward from a central point.
- The space between the lobes is known as a sinus.
- The leaf’s small stem, known as a petiole, is what holds it to the tree’s branch.
- There are two distinct parts to a leaf: the margin and the veins, which run from the petiole up to the leaf’s surface.
Let’s take a look at the 17 different classifications that Japanese maples currently fall under.
A decent place to start is with this category, which contains just about any plant that doesn’t have any distinguishing qualities that would place it in another one.
All of them are shallowly lobed and green in the summer when it comes to their leaves.
In addition, all of these plants have seven unique lobes on their leaves.
‘sakazuki’ is an excellent example of this type of dish. There are seven deep lobes on the bright green leaves, and each lobe has a highly toothed edge.
Foliage turns a brilliant scarlet in the fall. It grows to a height of 15 feet and a width of 15 feet when fully mature.
Leaf characteristics: Only half the blade is lobbed, and the summer foliage is green in color. Seven lobes can be found on each leaf.
Some of the most well-known and recognized Japanese maples can be found in this group. For the most part, this is where you’ll find any red-leaved, upright trees that don’t fall within the witches’ broom or linearilobum categories.
Many nurseries and home supply stores carry the cultivar ‘Bloodgood,’ one of the most well-known in this group. This tree can reach a height of 20 feet and a diameter of 15 feet.
Deep, dark red leaves with five “fingers” adorn this plant’s foliage.
Nature Hills Nursery sells quart-sized ‘Bloodgood’s’ if you’d want to bring one home.
Characteristic of summer foliage: crimson or purple coloration.
Because of their vibrant green leaves, aureum trees are distinctive. Leaf color changes from bright yellow or orange in the spring to yellow or lime green in the summer. In the autumn, they turn a pale chartreuse color.
An incredibly popular choice is “Golden Moon”. With seven or nine strongly pointed leaves, it can grow up to 20 feet in height and spread.
‘Summer Gold’ has seven or nine medium-sized lobes on each of its leaves.
‘Autumn Moon’ has lime green foliage with a tinge of orange in the spring before changing to burnt orange in the late summer.
The color changes to vivid orange in the fall. When fully grown, the tree will reach a height of 18 feet and a spread of 15 feet.
Summer foliage is distinguished by its yellow or orange hues.
The convex leaf lobes and deep lobes of several of the leaves distinguish this genus from others.
‘Trompenburg’ is a great illustration of this. The lobes of its dark maroon leaves fold backward from the midrib or veins, creating a deep crinkle. A maximum height restriction of 20 feet is maintained.
Convex lobes are a distinguishing feature.
When it comes to color, this group is full of trees that begin with beautiful pink leaves in spring and then change to bright red or totally green in the summer.
‘Deshōjō.’ is a nice example. In the spring, the leaves are a beautiful shade of brilliant pink with green cores, before turning bright crimson before finally turning green. Five or seven lobes can be found on the leaves.
‘Amber Ghost’ is a corallinum beauty that begins as a brilliant pink, then fades to a more melon-like hue. The leaves turn pink and red at the tips as the season progresses.
During the fall, the trees’ leaves turn a vibrant shade of red and orange. In height and width, it reaches roughly 15 feet.
In Japan, these plants are referred to as “spring trees” since the foliage is at its most vibrant around this time of year (during bonsai shows).
Leaf characteristics: Only half the blade of the leaf is lobbed, and the spring foliage is pink or pinkish-red in color.
The crispum group features leaves that are wrinkled or crinkled. Most of the trees stay fairly small, but a few grow to around ten feet tall.
The leaves of ‘Shishigashira,’ also known as ‘Lion’s Head,’ are tiny, crinkled, and deeply lobed.
This tree can reach a height of about 15 feet, which is quite a little for its category.
Leaf margins of ‘Krazy Krinkle’ are extensively serrated and the leaves are highly lobed and wrinkled. The height of this tree will not exceed ten feet.
Dwarf maple ‘Mikawa Yatsubusa’ grows to a maximum of three to four feet in height and has dense, layered green foliage.
Wavy or curled leaf margins are a defining trait.
This group stands out because, from far away, the leaves look like lace. When you look at the leaves up close, you can see that they have long, thin “fingers” that are deeply cut.
In fact, the leaves have so many lobes that each one goes all the way back to the leaf’s base. This makes each lobe look like a separate leaf.
The edges of the leaves are usually very toothed, which adds to the lace-like look. Most plants grow in a way that makes them hang down.
Vertrees wrote that his favorite of this group was “Tamukeyama.” This tree stays under ten feet tall (usually closer to six feet) and has deep red, almost purple leaves that don’t change color in the summer.
It turns a bright, vivid red in the fall.
You can’t get a better recommendation than that, so if you want to buy one for your space, go to Nature Hills Nursery and get a plant in a quart container.
“Garnet” doesn’t grow to be more than eight feet tall, and its deep maroon dissectum leaves turn a bright garnet red in the fall.
Another old favorite is “Crimson Queen.” It grows in a cascading way and has dark red leaves with deep teeth and lobes. It stays under ten feet tall and stays small.
Nature Hills sells a five- to six-foot “balled and burlapped” tree that you can put in your yard.
The lobes are deeply divided, and the edges are heavily toothed.
Almost all of the trees in this group look like bamboo. This is because their lobes are very narrow and deep, but they don’t have deep teeth like those in the dissectum group.
“Koto No Ito” is a good example of this. This beautiful tree’s leaves start out red, change to apple green in the summer, and slowly turn a bright golden yellow in the fall.
It grows straight up and is ten feet tall at its tallest point.
Vertrees said that “Red Pygmy” was one of his favorites from this group. This weeping tree only gets to be six feet tall and six feet wide. In the spring, its leaves are red, but in the summer, they turn olive green.
When fall comes, the leaves turn a golden orange color.
Characteristic: The edges of the lobes are either lightly toothed or smooth.
The leaves of the trees in this group have seven to nine lobes and sinuses that go all the way to the bottom.
But the lobes aren’t long and thin like those of linearilobum or dissectum. Instead, they are more round. The edges are cut very sharply.
“Omurayama” is a good example of this category, according to Vertrees. This type of tree is 15 feet tall and has a cascading shape.
In the spring, the leaves are light green with orange hints. In the summer, they turn green. The leaves turn red, orange, and yellow in the fall.
This type of Japanese maple is often called “fern leaf.”
Identifiable by its deeply divided lobes with wide sinuses, toothed edges, and green color in summer.
The plants in this group have leaves that are of different colors.
This group is different from variegated, which also have trees with different-colored leaves because the colors on the edges and in the middle of the leaves are very different.
Check out “Butterfly” to see a good example of this group.
The edges of this tree’s leaves are creamy white, and the middle is a grayish-green color. In the spring, the edges of the leaves might be pink, and in the fall, they turn red.
The tree grows to about 12 feet tall, and each leaf has five lobes.
In the West, “Yama Nishiki” is called “Snow Peak.” It has a distinct pattern with creamy white edges and medium green centers. Young leaves have a bit of a mottled look before they start to stand out.
Most Japanese maples with different colors are green, but ‘Shiraz’ is mostly red. In the spring, the leaves are dark red with light pink edges. Later, the middle of the leaf turns slightly greenish-red, and the edges stay pink. This variety can get as tall as 15 feet.
The edge of the leaf is different from the middle.
Since A. palmatum is the most common type of Japanese maple, this group can be a little hard to understand. In this case, though, this group can also include other species.
The word “palmatum” comes from the Latin word for “hand.” This is what makes this group unique.
All of the leaves in this group look like hands because they have five (or sometimes seven) lobes and a sinus that only goes one-third of the way down the leaf.
All plants that don’t have a secondary trait, like redwood, that would make them a better fit in a different group, are put in this group.
“Diana” is a great example of this. This tree stays short, at less than three feet tall. It has green leaves that are edged with pink and white.
The leaf lobes don’t reach more than a third of the length of the leaf, and the wood is brown or green in the winter.
This group’s name says it all. The bark on these trees is not smooth like the bark on most Japanese maples. Instead, it is rough and looks a bit like, you guessed it, pine bark.
Only the bark is used to put these plants into groups, so the leaves are very different. Most trees start out with smooth bark when they are young, but then they get the rough bark that is typical of them.
You can see what this bark looks like in “Nishiki Gawa” and “Arakawa.”
Pine-like, rough bark is a defining trait.
Like pine bark trees, all you need to know about this group is its bark. The branches of all of these trees are bright red, coral, yellow, or orange.
This gives a winter landscape a bit of color and contrast, but these plants also tend to lose their branches.
Most of the time, you’ll see “Sango-Kaku.”
The lime green leaves stand out against the bright coral bark.
This beautiful tree is sold in #2 containers at Nature Hills Nursery.
The bark is either coral, orange, yellow, or red in the winter.
The leaves of trees in this group have veins that are not the same color as the rest of the leaves. This group, which is also called “reticulated maples,” has some real standouts.
For example, the leaves of the ‘Nathan’ plant are orange-red with green veins. The leaves of “Aka-shigitatsu-sawa” start out pale pink with green veins and then change to green and red with green veins.
The leaves of “First Ghost” are creamy white or pale green, and their veins are deep green.
The veins of a leaf look different from the rest of the leaf.
The plants in this group have no petioles, which is how you can tell them apart. The word sessile in botany means that there is no stalk. Instead, the lobes of each leaf are attached to the stem by something that looks like a petiole.
It doesn’t matter if the tree has different-colored leaves or any other feature. If the leaves don’t have stalks, it’s a sessilifolium, which is also called a stalk-less maple.
Most of these trees are harder to find, but a few are becoming more and more popular. The leaves of “Beni-hagaromo” are red in the spring and turn a purple-brown color in the summer.
With its heavily toothed edges and typical sessilifolium lobe attachment, the tree looks like it is covered in colorful feathers instead of leaves.
Sessile leaves are a defining trait.
Either this group or the marginatum group is for maples with different colors.
But it’s not fair to call “Ukigumo” a “variegated plant.” This A. palmatum cultivar, which is also called ‘Floating Clouds,’ has leaves that are pale pink on the outside and turn green in the middle. It looks like a ghostly white plant.
But the center is more pink and white with deep green spots than green all the way through. The more it warms up, the less variation you’ll see, but when it’s cool, it’s very noticeable.
Unlike some Japanese maples that tend to go back to their old ways at the slightest provocation, this one usually stays the same.
Siebold’s maple (A. sieboldianum), also called “Kumoi Nishiki,” has beautiful leaves that are a mix of creamy white and apple green. This plant never gets taller than 10 feet.
In the spring, the leaves of “Peaches and Cream” are creamy-white and rose pink. In the summer, the leaves turn green and white with dark green veins and rose pink edges.
This one doesn’t get taller than 10 feet.
Leaf has different colors all over, not just on the edges.
Most Japanese maple leaves look like hands with a longer middle lobe, but the middle lobe on witches’-broom trees is short and stumpy, like a hand with the middle finger cut off below the middle knuckle.
The leaves of “Carlis Corner Broom” are bright pink in the spring and turn a deep burgundy color in the summer. By autumn, the leaves are a dark red color. The bright red leaves of “Skeeter’s Broom” turn bronze in the fall.
“Vic’s Broom” is a dwarf plant that grows no taller than four feet, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t make a big difference in the garden.
The edges of the small, pale green leaves are rose red. In the fall, the leaves change from green to yellow, orange, and red.
The middle lobe is short, usually shorter than the lobes on either side of it.
Making Sense Out of Japanese Maples
With all the different species, leaves, growth habits, and bark colors, this group of plants can be hard to understand. But that’s not all that’s great about Japanese maples.
Growers are working hard to make new kinds of trees, so there will be even more interesting choices in the future.
So it’s very helpful to have them put into these easy-to-understand groups.
Now, when you go to the nursery, you can say you’re looking for the perfect “red bark” to give your yard some winter color.
If you’re like me, you probably can’t pick a favorite, but let us know what kind you’re hoping to get (or already have).
Did this guide help you figure out what’s going on in the strange and beautiful world of Japanese maples? Tell us what you think in the section below! And if you can’t decide, check out our extra guide, “21 of the Best Japanese Maple Varieties,” which has some of our top picks.