Japanese Maple Bonsai (Acer Palmatum): A Beginner’s Guide

Bonsai doesn’t refer to a specific type of plant. It’s the Japanese art form of growing miniature trees which mimic their naturally, fully-sized relatives. 

One of the most rewarding Bonsai trees you can care for is the Japanese Maple, or the Acer Palmatum. The word ‘palma’ is Latin for the palm of your hand, which refers to the five-pronged leaf of an Acer. 

This plant will treat you to spectacular displays of red, which get more vivid in autumn and winter. It’s also one of the most popular bonsai trees thanks to its color and how relatively easy it is to care for.

Things You Should Know About A Japanese Maple Bonsai

If taken care of, a Japanese maple bonsai can live for more than 100 years (see also How Long Can Bonsai Trees Live For?)! This makes them a very rewarding plant, and generally the older they are, the more beautiful they get. 

In warmer climates, these plants prefer partial sun, and they can produce tiny flowers from May until June. 

A mature Japanese maple bonsai can get to a height of 60-80 inches, and the width depends on the width of the pot you grow it in, and how much you prune it. 

Types of Acer Palmatum

Widely admired for its leaves, the Japanese Maple has always been a firm favorite when it comes to bonsai trees. 

Acers are popular plants not just in the art of growing bonsai, but also in gardens as beautifully ornamental trees and shrubs (see also 30 Best Types of Shrubs to Grow in Your Yard) in their own right.

The most popular varieties of Acers which can be grown as bonsai trees are:

  • Acer Palmatum ‘Deshojo’
  • Acer Palmatum ‘Arakawa’
  • Acer Palmatum ‘Seigen’
  • Acer Palmatum ‘Katsura’
  • Acer Palmatum ‘Shishigashira’

Whichever variety you choose, (or is chosen for you, if you already have one!), you may be treated to a lovely display of tiny flowers in May or June. 

In younger trees, the bark is red or green (See also 16 Best White Bark Trees You’ll Want to Have for Landscaping), which matures to a pale gray or brown.

Like most Japanese maples, the foliage only gets more stunning in autumn. The leaves seem to glow in the sun, which is an unforgettable sight.

How to Grow A Japanese Maple Bonsai from Seed or By Propagation

Before we start, it’s worth mentioning that it’s much easier to buy an established bonsai, as propagating them or even growing them from seed can be a tough and lengthy process.

Propagating a Japanese Maple Bonsai

You can propagate from an existing Japanese Maple bonsai in autumn or spring, by air-layering. This method is suitable for plants that have difficulty producing new plants from cuttings. 

Instead of removing a stem in order to propagate, you wrap it in damp moss to encourage the stem to produce roots, while it’s still attached to the main plant. 

Growing a Japanese Maple Bonsai from Seed

Like most tree seeds, Japanese maples require stratification. This means you need to have the seeds in a cold environment for a period of time, to simulate winter, and to ‘shock’ them into waking from dormancy.

This is usually done in the fridge. The length of time you need to keep them in there depends on the species, and for the Japanese maple, it’s around 100 days. 

This process will break down the hard seed coating in order for the seeds to germinate. Once that’s done, you should soak the seeds for 24 hours to rehydrate them before you plant them. 

How To Care For Japanese Maple Bonsai

Sunlight

Japanese Maple bonsai trees need light shade during the day, to protect them from the strength of the midday sun. 

As they usually live outside, they also need to be kept away from radiators and other sources of dry heat. 

They can be grown in most climates, as they are frost-hardy plants, but will require protection from temperatures below 14 °F.

A place where they can soak up indirect sunlight, in a well-ventilated area, is perfect for a Japanese maple bonsai.

Watering

Japanese maple bonsai trees do require a lot of water, especially in a house where the air is particularly dry and usually warm. During hotter weather, they may even need to be watered twice a day.

It’s a good idea to use tap water that’s been sitting at least for 24 hours, as this reduces the chemicals in tap water that could harm the plant. Any lime or alkaline traces won’t be beneficial, as acers need acidic soil in order to thrive.

Fertilizing

While you can use a generic houseplant fertilizer, it’s worth shelling out for a specially formulated bonsai feed (see also Bonsai Fertilizer Types), especially if you want your bonsai to live for a longer period of time. 

These fertilizers are relatively cheap, and they’re especially formulated to give bonsai trees (see also Bonsai Tree Meaning and Symbolism) the nutrients they need in order to grow healthily. 

To prevent overfeeding your bonsai, fertilize it every four weeks or so, and reduce this in winter.

Organic fertilizers are best, as they tend to release the nutrients slowly into the soil, which mimics the way soil absorbs fresh nutrients.

Potting and Repotting

It’s useful to repot your bonsai every two years in spring, using a bonsai compost mix. Instead of using a new, larger container, you’ll want to use the original container. 

Pruning the root ball before you repot the plant will prevent it from becoming too big for the pot, and you can also add lava rock or a pumice stone to the soil.  

How to Prune a Japanese Maple Bonsai

Pruning is a necessary evil for bonsai trees, in order to keep the desired shape and to keep the plant itself healthy. You can use bonsai pruning scissors, or even your fingers to pinch back any long, leggy stalks. 

In spring, it’s worth being a little meaner when you prune back the bonsai, as this will encourage the plant to grow bushier. 

To prune the stronger, thicker branches, you’ll need to do this in autumn. This will help prevent bleeding or even disease entering the wounds, but you can also apply a wound balm to help promote healing.

Cut the new growth back to a single or a double pair of leaves, and snip the off-shoots that branch from pairs of leaves.

Keep in mind that pruning the plant can stress it out, and too much can cause the plant to go into shock, and lose all of its leaves, so be careful of how much you take off and when.

Pests and Diseases

Japanese red maples are prone to quite a few pests and diseases.

The main thing to watch out for is fungal disease, such as verticillium wilt. The most common cause of this is open plant wounds, usually caused by pruning. It can easily kill your bonsai.

To prevent this disease from taking hold, don’t prune your bonsai during a high-growth period, like the height of summer. To reduce the chances of fungal disease, use a bonsai wound salve to close the wounds.

In terms of pests, aphids are probably the worst. Keep an eye out for them by checking the plant regularly, especially under the leaves. You can use insecticides to get rid of them, but be careful what kind you use, as they can be harmful to the plant. 

Where to Buy Maple Bonsai

Because of their popularity, you can buy Japanese maple bonsai trees from nearly anywhere, from garden centers, nurseries, to even supermarkets and other shops which regularly sell plants.

You can also get seeds, which usually contain around 20-50 seeds per packet. 

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