Should a Japanese maple be grown in shade?


Japanese maples and conifers

Should a Japanese maple be grown in shade requires a very short answer – no. There are a number of reasons why it’s not advisable to shade them; first and foremost it’s unnatural. Most people think of a Japanese maple as being a shade tree but in reality the only trees that are shading a Japanese maple are other Japanese maples.


Japanese maples along the Tomoe river

In the wild, Acer palmatum will get up to sixty feet and in cultivation they will reach, in time, a similar size also. The illustrations on this page are of Japanese maples growing along the  upper Tomoe river by the Taigetsu Bridge in Aichi Prefecture in Japan. There is a distinct delineation between the maples and the conifers along the river bank – the former are growing where they can get the maximum amount of sun. And these are not small trees either; the people in the photos provide a sense of perspective.


Japnese maples growing by the upper Tomoe river


Path to Kohjakuji temple

The path from the river to the Kohjakuji temple threads through more maples and gives a better idea of how large these trees really are, whilst the first picture shows the nearby Mount Iimori – the maples are growing amongst the conifers and not underneath.

The other reason Japanese maples should not be shaded is because of the need for sun to fully develop the leaf colour. When grown in shade, or even dappled shade, what should last several months or be particularly intense, will fade very quickly or not develop the full depth of colour that a particular cultivar is renowned for.

The argument that Japanese maples burn in full sun is nonsense and has nothing to do with the intensity of the sun but rather the quality of the root system. Commercial nurseries in New South Wales; Australia, the North Island of New Zealand and South Africa all grow Japanese maples out of doors with no shade cover without any ill effects – it would not make financial sense to grow them this way if they were continually getting scorched. In mainland USA the only place where Japanese maples are likely to encounter problems is southern Florida and that’s down to problems in the winter rather than what happens in summer.

If your garden only has space with dappled shade or sun part of the day, they are still going to grow but they are going to be slower plants with less developed colour compared to a maple grown in full sun. The key, as I mentioned earlier, is the quality of the root system – easily achievable with plants in the ground but slightly more problematic with plants in containers.

Container growing in a hot summer climate can present something of a challenge if we’re looking for perfection but there are a number of techniques that can be utilized and I shall be looking at the options in detail in future posts.

The illustrations on this page have been reproduced courtesy of Hajime Hayashida

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