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What is a Japanese Maple Bonsai?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated May 16, 2024
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A Japanese maple bonsai is a maple tree that gardeners miniaturize in the ancient Japanese bonsai style. Some historians believe bonsai started in Japan in approximately 200 AD; others think it started earlier in China. Though many maple varieties are chosen for bonsai, the Japanese maple, or acer palmatum is usually the preferred variety. The Japanese maple tree — a native of Japan and China — is typically an excellent plant for the bonsai technique because it is a vigorous plant with delicate, fern-like leaves. Palmatum refers to its hand-shaped leaves, palmately lobed with five, seven, or nine distinctly pointed lobes.

Bonsai masters stunt the Japanese maple by manipulating the plant in a variety of ways. Simply putting a tree in a small pot does not automatically reduce its size, and it will soon overgrow the pot. The bonsai technique uses small pots, along with pruning the plant's branches and roots to stunt its growth. Wiring the tree's branches, among other procedures, creates the beautiful bonsai tree shapes. The Japanese maple lends itself to this manipulation, which is why growers frequently choose it.

Normally, gardeners buy Japanese maple bonsais as established plants. A gardener typically may purchase Japanese maple bonsai plants as seeds, seedlings, grafts, softwood cuttings, or container plants. Sometimes seeds are not true to the parent plant, which means that a bonsai grower may waste time on an undesirable plant. Cuttings from Japanese maple softwood often fail to take root as well, and experienced growers commonly exercise patience raising these maples to maturity.

Bonsai trees normally require more watering than most houseplants or container plants, sometimes needing water two or more times a day, depending upon factors such as sun exposure, humidity, and wind. Though some gardeners advise people to mist their bonsai plants, misting is typically ineffective in raising the humidity. Bonsai masters suggest putting a shallow container of stones under the bonsai pot, and then filling the rock container with water. As the water evaporates, it humidifies the tree all day. Japanese maple bonsai trees often respond well to this treatment.

Japanese maple bonsai trees typically are fertilized with a slow-releasing high-nitrogen fertilizer after it shows new growth. Some experts suggest fertilizing the bonsai tree every two to three weeks while others recommend only once every two months. Generally, experts warn that Japanese maple bonsai trees should not be fertilized during the hottest weeks of summer, and in autumn, the plant needs a low-nitrogen fertilizer.

If the gardener is careful, he can shape the Japanese maple bonsai in almost any bonsai style. Bonsai trees are fragile and susceptible to breakage; therefore, the two fundamental styles of bonsai — formal upright and informal upright — are usually the easiest for beginners. Other styles include the slanting, semi-cascade, and cascade. It is doable to train the Japanese red maple bonsai tree into the semi-cascading style, but the fragile branches and trunk of the Japanese red maple bonsai tree are more susceptible to breakage with this style.

Unlike some bonsai plants, the maple tree is an outdoor bonsai plant. Experts usually urge plant owners to protect the Japanese maple bonsais from the sun and wind because the leaves sunburn and wind scorch easily. In some climates, this is not a problem. Consult local bonsai masters for advice.

The Japanese maple's leaves have a range of beautiful colors from light green in the spring to red, yellow, or orange in autumn. Other varieties of the Japanese maple have red leaves throughout the growing season. Despite their size, the Japanese maple bonsai presents a beautiful autumn show. The maples are deciduous, dropping their leaves during winter.

Technically, Japanese maple refers to Acer palmatum and Acer japonicum and their varieties, but some people refer to any maples from Asia as Japanese maples. There are thousands of maple tree varieties cultivated from Acer palmatum. Often, bonsai masters graft less hardy maples onto the Japanese maples' stout root systems.

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Discussion Comments
By Rundocuri — On Jan 14, 2015

@heavanet- Actually, the sun and warmth of time spend on your porch will be good for the Japanese maple tree that you bonsai. Technically, you could even leave it outdoors in cold weather, since this type of tree is an indoor or outdoor plant.

By Ocelot60 — On Jan 13, 2015

@heavanet- Just as the article mentions, Japanese maple trees are hardy and will survive outdoors. I don't see any problems with putting a bonsai Japanese maple on your porch during the summer. Just make sure that you move it indoors when bad weather is in the forecast so your bonsai work is not destroyed in heavy wind, hail, or rain.

By Heavanet — On Jan 12, 2015

I live in a climate that has the typical seasonal weather changes, but the summers are sunny and warm. I have a nice porch where I spend a lot of time when the weather is nice, so I like to fill it with plants during the growing season. If I bonsai a Japanese maple tree, will it be good for the plant to put it on my porch during the warm summer months?

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