Maples – there are literally thousands to choose from, each with their own colorful characteristics. So how do you choose just one? Well, if you want great fall color and don’t have a lot of room, Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are a great place to start.

Japanese maples

Japanese maples seem to glow in fall.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’

Acer palmatum ‘Bloodgood’ is widely available and has excellent fall color!

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Red and purple Japanese maple leaves

As the leaves turn, you’ll see a mix of purple, red and sometimes orange or yellow.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

Cut-leaf Japanese maple

This cut-leaf Japanese maple puts on a show with its bright-red fall color.

Photo Credit: Lane Greer

The problem is, if you know a little about Japanese maples, that there are hundreds of different kinds. You can get a Japanese maple with green or red leaves, whole or cut-leaf (laceleaf) foliage, or a weeping or upright form. Then you need to wade through all the cultivars, many of which are difficult to pronounce.

The best way to choose is to figure out what you’re looking for in a Japanese maple. In general, the red-leaf types (designated as var. atropurpureum or ‘Atropurpureum’) turn red in fall, while the green-leaf types turn yellow or orange. Both whole-leaf and cut-leaf types (designated as var. dissectum or ‘Dissectum’) have good color, but whole leaves really do give more of a display. Whether you choose a weeping or upright form depends on your space. Weeping forms are shorter and take up less room in the landscape. They make an excellent specimen tree (the kind you want to set apart to really make a statement in your garden).

There are a few popular cultivars. ‘Bloodgood’ is probably the best known and most available. In summer, its leaves are reddish-purple, but in fall the leaves turn crimson and make a spectacular show. In their book Japanese Maples, J.D. Vertrees and Peter Gregory state that the cultivar ‘Osakazuki’ has the best fall color of all, but it’s not easy to find. For more red and crimson fall color, try ‘Autumn Glory’, ‘Crimson Queen’, ‘Ever Red’, ‘Garnet’, ‘Moonfire’, and ‘Nigrum’. For orange, select ‘Fascination’ or ‘Shindeshojo’. For orange, red and purple, try the aptly named ‘Glowing Embers’.

Japanese maples are hardy in Zones 5 to 8. The upright forms reach 20-30 feet, while the weeping forms grow only about 10 feet tall (after a couple of decades or more). For most climates, they prefer partial or filtered sun. Further south, provide afternoon shade, as the leaves turn brown and curl up when they get too much light. These maples also appreciate good, well-drained garden soil. And give them adequate water and mulch, especially when they’re young.

So if you’re looking for a colorful tree to add to your fall garden, go out and grab a Japanese maple. They come in all shapes and sizes and are versatile enough to be used in any landscape. They can even be grown in containers! While they add a riot of bright fall color, their forms and leaf types will add a unique touch to your landscape any time of the year.