One of the finest ornamental trees for a home landscape is the Japanese maple. I should probably rephrase that, because there is not just one Japanese maple, but hundreds of different named varieties sporting different growth habits, with varying leaf shapes and colors. Here in East Texas we have all the right conditions to grow these wonderful trees, including acidic soils, abundant rainfall (usually), and four seasons that aid in good fall color changes.
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, plus selections from the USA and Europe are also available. Japanese maples 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. And, their typically smaller stature makes them very suitable for smaller yards.
One of the more popular forms of Japanese maples is 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 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 are often more vigorous and tolerant of adverse conditions.
Japanese maples do best in partial sun, preferably with an eastern sunny exposure to promote leaf coloration, with protection from the western sun. Avoid full, all-day 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, plus expanded shale 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.