Japanese Maples in Maryland Landscapes: Plant Location & Care Are Keys to Success

Japanese maple leaves

Japanese maple. Photo: Pixabay

The group of small ornamental shade trees lumped under the name Japanese maples, Acer palmatum and A. japonicum, and their many hybrids, are very popular with gardeners and plant enthusiasts. Most of the questions we receive about problems with Japanese maples are horticulturally related to poor growing conditions and maintenance rather than insects or diseases. The causes of these problems are usually root or trunk-related issues. So, let’s start with a look at the planting conditions Japanese maples need in order to thrive. 

Japanese maple specimen tree

Photo: Dave Clement

Planting and Care

Japanese maples generally grow slowly and mature to heights of 30-40 feet or less, especially for the dissectum types (18 feet) and the dwarfs (3-6 feet), over a 50 year period. The green forms can tolerate full sun, but most will prefer some afternoon shade, and this is especially true of all the colored and variegated forms. During hot summers, sunburn and bronzing of the foliage can occur even if adequately watered, and leaf scorch will definitely occur under drought conditions. So, think of the growing conditions that are best for rhododendrons and azaleas, with slightly acidic well-drained soils, and you will have the right conditions for Japanese maples.

These trees have shallow, very fine root systems that need a cool, evenly moist place to grow. Severe drought will kill roots from heat and desiccation. After establishment, the aerial parts of Japanese maples can survive freezes down to zero, however the roots can only survive to 14 F. So roots need protection in severe winters, especially if planted in above ground containers. A light covering of mulch will help to protect roots and conserve water.

Japanese maple tree

Photo: Dave Clement

Container grown plants need special care since their roots are even more vulnerable to drying and freeze damage. Containers may need added insulation, or relocation to more protected areas, during severe winter conditions. In-ground plants should be sited with these issues in mind.

Bare root and ball-and-burlap plants should only be planted during the dormant season. Container plants can be planted throughout the season provided their root balls are carefully spread and special attention is given to watering. Japanese maples are not heavy feeders so most don’t need fertilization unless they are grown in containers.

Japanese maples

Photo: Pixabay

Japanese maples will benefit from thoughtful pruning and shaping during their lifespan. Major pruning should be done during the dormant period except from January to May when the sap is rising and bleeding may occur. Light pruning and removal of dead wood can be done anytime.

Pests, Diseases, and Problems

The most common question we receive is “why are my leaves turning brown along the edges?” This problem is referred to as leaf scorch. This symptom can be especially severe on dissected leaved cultivars since their leaves are very delicate and thin. The solution is planting where the tree will receive some afternoon shade to prevent heat damage and to provide a uniform water supply.

Japanese maple leaf scorch

Leaf scorch on Japanese maple. Photo: Dave Clement

At noted above, roots can be damaged by heat and drought. Severe freezes also will kill shallow roots and the inner bark of the trunk. In such cases, the symptoms will progress from leaf scorch to leaf drop, and to branch, and trunk dieback. In some cases a good portion or maybe half of the tree may die along one side especially if prevailing winds come from that direction. Trees located near structures that retain or reflect heat, such as white walls, patios, and sidewalks can also damage foliage from overheating and droughty soils.

Many gardeners will jump to the diagnosis of a fungal root disease such as Verticillium wilt when they observe dieback, however this has not been proven to very common in Maryland soils even when submitted to the University of Maryland Plant Diagnostic Lab for confirmation.

Japanese maple with dead branches

Prune out dead twigs at any time. Pruning also increases air circulation around the foliage. Photo: UME Ask an Expert

A frequent question we receive is about spotting or damage to the leaves. This often is caused by rough handling of young plants, freeze damage to young leaf buds as well as physical bruising caused by windy conditions. In very wet spring weather, fungal diseases can infect the leaves. These include leaf spots, usually caused by Phyllosticta. Anthracnose diseases, which appear as irregular blotches anywhere on the leaves, are caused by three fungi, Colletotrichum, Discula, Aureobasidium. The solution again is proper siting of trees so that they receive moderate weather exposure and have good air circulation to reduce the likelihood of fungal infection.

Japanese maple

Black spots in the lesions indicate fungal fruiting structures. Photo: Dave Clement

Another common problem we hear of is dieback of the fine twiggy growth on the inside of the foliage canopy, especially on laceleaf cultivars. This is because of the dense leaf growth of the outside canopy that shades the inside branch growth. This dead twiggy growth should be removed to thin the canopy and allow for better air circulation and also to expose more of the interesting branch structure of the tree itself.

In total there are many Japanese maple cultivars for the garden landscape with numerous horticultural attributes that keep this tree in high demand and versatile in many landscape design situations. With a little care in planting and maintenance, Japanese maples can be beautiful additions to our gardens. One cautionary note: if you live near a natural area, some cultivars of Japanese maples have been observed to escape cultivation and seed into forested areas. Keep this in mind as you make new plant selections.

By Dr. Dave Clement, Principal Agent, University of Maryland Extension, Home & Garden Information Center. For plant disease and pest updates, follow Dr. Dave on Facebook.

Have a plant or pest question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask an Expert.

4 Comments on “Japanese Maples in Maryland Landscapes: Plant Location & Care Are Keys to Success

  1. I’ve been learning horticulture for 45+ yrs, and never was more shocked than reading your 2nd para under “Planting and Care” which stated aerial parts should be hardy to 0 but roots to only 14. I’m well aware of above ground roots in containers being more vulnerable than their terrestrial colleagues, and of plants that are only root hardy, i.e., all aerial growth may die but roots will produce new growth in spring. However, never have I heard of the reverse. Roots are insulated by soil and not subject to desiccation from wind and sun, so how can they be more vulnerable than aerial? Further, at least here on the east side of MD in zone 7 where temps are expected to often fall to 10, there is a thriving Japanese Maple population. Was this a typo?
    George L.

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  2. P.S. Meant to include in orig post: since roots are an integral part of a maple, if the roots die at 14, how can the aerial remain alive (to zero)?

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  3. Acer japonica is rare here. I used to grow Japanese maples, including a few Acer japonica, in the nursery, and enjoyed growing them, but I dislike them out in the landscape. They are not well suited to the chaparral climate of the Santa Clara Valley. Yet, they are very (ridiculously) popular. People plant them out in the open, where they get roasted. I would prefer the vine maple from Oregon and Washington and British Columbia, but they never became popular here.

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