Best Japanese Maples for Sun

Emperor I's leaf emergence later in spring can avoid damage by late frosts. 

photo credit: Andrew Schmidt

All Japanese maples are tolerant of part shade conditions.  Like Dogwoods and Redbuds, they evolved to grow happily at the edge of the forest as small trees.  Their undeniable beauty leads many people to want to plant them as a focal point or specimen tree, often in full sun.  Unfortunately, many Japanese maples are less tolerant of full sun, developing leaf burn in the summer heat.  But if you choose the right variety, amend the soil properly, and give it proper care after planting you can enjoy the beauty of a Japanese maple in full sun even in the Triad.

Many things besides sun can cause leaf burn on Japanese maples.  As shallow-rooted trees, all Japanese maples can suffer in dry periods.  Even the sun tolerant varieties can develop leaf tip burn if the soil is too dry.  Always monitor your Japanese maple during dry spells, and water them weekly if needed.  (They are “Goldilocks” plants: not too wet or too dry-they prefer just right!)  Avoid wetting the foliage in full sun when it’s hot as it can also cause leaf burn.  Keeping the root area covered with 2-3” of mulch helps keep the root zone moist.  Fertilize Japanese maples minimally; excess fertilizer can cause leaf burn too.  If your Japanese maple shows signs of stress by dropping its leaves do not fertilize it to encourage new leaves.  Japanese maples can produce a second set of leaves in this situation; just correct the problem that caused it-usually too much or little water.

Even though they may seem finicky, Japanese maples are actually easy to grow in the right conditions, having few pest or disease problems.  They are also very long-lived, so if you have the right spot, you can enjoy a Japanese maple for years to come.  Here are some Japanese maples that can tolerate full sun in the Triad with good watering practices:

Shania-Not only is ‘Shania’ sun tolerant, she’s compact too. The perfect choice for smaller areas, ‘Shania’ is slow growing and only reaches 8-10’ tall and 8’ high, with dense, layered growth.  Leaves emerge red in spring, turn maroon in summer, and finally change to brilliant orange in fall.

 Emperor I-This variety leafs out slightly later than many Japanese maples, minimizing the danger of a late frost damaging the leaves. Also fairly compact, at only 15’x15’, ‘Emperor is a moderate grower. The dark red foliage turns scarlet in fall.

Sangu Kaku Japanese maple showing fall color & red stems.

Sangu Kaku-Also known as Coral Bark Maple for the brightly colored branches that are spectacular in winter and spring. New leaves are bright green and look beautiful against the colorful twigs.  Leaves turn darker green for summer and peach-gold in fall. Grows to 15-20’ tall and almost as wide. ‘Sangu Kaku’ is a spectacular specimen tree.

Inaba Shidare-A weeping red-leafed dissectum type with lacy leaves, leaves emerge dark red in spring, changing gradually to bronze then mostly green in the summer heat.  Don’t worry-the leaves change to fiery red in fall. Expect it to reach 4-6 feet tall in ten years, with a spread of 7-9 feet.

Crimson Queen-Another red-leafed weeping dissectum, ‘Crimson Queen’ holds her red color through the summer. Another good choice for a smaller garden, only reaching 10’x10’.

Waterfall Japanese Maple

Seiryu-This is the only upright dissectum Japanese maple. ‘Seiryu’ is vase-shaped, reaching 10-15 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide, making it a nice little shade tree for a small space. Young leaves are touched with red, turning pure green in summer and gold with red flushes in fall. Unusual.

Tamukeyama-This red-leafed dissectum cultivar that holds leaf color well and has a very graceful form-probably why it’s been in cultivation for over 300 years! ‘Tamukeyama’ has a strong weeping habit, reaching only 5-7’ tall and at least as wide in ten years.  Fall color is scarlet.

Waterfall-A very finely-textured green-leafed dissectum, ‘Waterfall’ has a beautiful cascading habit. The leaves are brilliant, glowing green in spring, becoming dark green in summer, and finally turning glowing burnt-orange in fall. ‘Waterfall’ grows wider than tall, rarely exceeding 10’ with a 12’ spread.

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