Maples, particularly Japanese maples, figure among the most iconic bonsai subjects. This article explores why maples are so popular in the hobby, compares the suitability for bonsai of common maple species and varieties, and provides an overview of maple bonsai care.
Pretty lobed leaves, gorgeous fall color and ease of care are just a few of the reasons why maples rank among the most popular species cultivated as bonsai.
Maples belong to the Acer genus, which contains more than 130 species of trees and shrubs. Most species are native to Asia, with some found in Europe, North America and northern Africa. While some maple species can reach heights of 80-150 feet, many others evolved as much smaller, understory trees or shrubs.
Given such diversity, it’s not surprising that some maple species work better for bonsai than others. This article looks at several popular and common species and explores their suitability for use in the hobby.
Maple Species – The Good and Not-As-Good
The two most popular maples used for bonsai – the Japanese maple and the trident maple – are native to Asia. These species are among the smaller maples, reaching mature heights of 35 feet or less, depending on the variety.
Maple species native to other areas of the planet tend to grow larger than the popular Asian varieties. These include the red maple, sugar maple, and silver maple in North America, and the field maple in parts of Europe and other areas.
These species vary widely in their suitability for bonsai. The growth habits of some varieties make them challenging for bonsai, although some hobbyists have successfully produced nice examples of bonsai with “difficult” trees.
Let’s examine some of the more common species of maple from various parts of the world and see how they stack up as potential bonsai.
The Japanese maple, Acer palmatum, ranks as the most popular maple used in bonsai. Its Latin name comes from the resemblance of this tree’s five-lobed leaves to an open human palm. Prized for its brilliant red-orange fall color, this species is also quite striking in the spring as its leaves emerge a richly hued red.
The popularity of Acer palmatum, coupled with its genetic variability, has led to the development of more than 1,000 cultivars.
A Quick Lesson on Cultivars
A cultivar is a variety within a species that is grown for its unique characteristics. Sometimes an individual tree will display deviations from the species norm. It might be dwarfed, have unusually colored leaves, or display some other interesting variation.
When the dissimilarity promises commercial potential, growers look to replicate the tree, complete with its distinguishing characteristics. Because such unique traits are often the expression of recessive genes, offspring grown from seeds of the tree are seldom identical to the parent. While some cultivars are grown successfully from seed, most are propagated through rooted cuttings or by techniques such as budding and grafting.
Cultivars can be distinguished by the quote marks appearing at the end of their name. For example, Acer palmatum ‘Kashima’ is one of the more popular cultivars used for bonsai.
The remarkable number of Acer palmatum cultivars offers gardeners, landscapers and bonsai enthusiasts a wide range of choices with regard to leaf type and color, fall color, and growth habit. Varieties are available with summer leaf hues of green, bronze, variegated, multicolor and more. Some have leaves that retain red color through spring, before turning green in summer and red again in autumn.
Aside from cultivars, other varieties of Japanese maple are popular bonsai subjects. Acer palmatum dissectum refers to several varieties of shrub-like Japanese maples that feature deeply cut palmate leaves with a delicate lacey appearance. Often referred to as “laceleaf” or “threadleaf” maples, these graceful little trees are popular landscape plants due to their low spreading shape and lovely foliage. Of course, these same traits also make them excellent bonsai specimens.
The Trident maple (Acer trifidum), native to China and Japan, also enjoys immense popularity as a bonsai subject. This tree’s trident-shaped leaves reduce easily and offer lovely yellow-orange to red coloring in autumn. Its trunk thickens relatively quickly and it tends to develop gnarly roots, which add visual interest.
Its ready responsiveness to bonsai techniques makes trident maple an excellent early choice for beginners to the hobby. Owners of tridents do need to afford the tree good winter protection, as this variety is less winter-hardy than most maples.
The red maple (Acer rubrum)is perhaps the most common North American tree used for the hobby. Known for its gorgeous fall color, this maple boasts additional characteristics that make it well-suited for bonsai. Its leaves dwarf easily, and it develops surface roots within a relatively short time.
Red maples are susceptible to an issue known as girdling roots. In this condition, one or more roots of the tree begins to grow in a circular pattern around the trunk. Over time, the root begins to “choke” the trunk, cutting off the flow of sap to the tree. Trees susceptible to this problem, which include sugar maples, elms and zelkovas, are especially likely to develop developing girdling roots when grown in containers. Therefore, bonsai hobbyists need to keep an eye out for the problem when repotting their trees.
The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is native to the Northeastern and Central United States and Canada. Best known as the primary source for delicious maple syrup, the sugar maple is also prized for its lovely red-orange fall color.
In nature, the sugar maple grows 60-80 feet tall. The growth habits of such a large tree often present challenges to hobbyists wishing to miniaturize it as a bonsai. For instance, leaf reduction in sugar maples is more difficult to achieve and of limited success. Because of this, the best and most well-proportioned examples of sugar maple bonsai tend to be larger specimens that have trained for many years.
On the plus side, sugar maple is a prolifically common tree within its range. It can be easily collected for free from fields, wooded areas, and even as volunteer seedlings from landscaping. Many bonsai hobbyists enjoy the challenge posed by sugar maple and are quite fond of those trees, even though they may never develop into shining examples of bonsai perfection.
The silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is a very fast-growing maple popularly planted as a landscape tree. It can grow up to 80 feet tall, with a thick trunk and massive, shallow root system.
The distinctive, five-lobed leaves of the silver maple are more deeply cut than red maple or sugar maple. The backs of the leaves in summer are a silverly green color, giving the tree a shimmery look when stirred by a brisk breeze. In autumn, the leaves turn a pale yellow and are decidedly less showy than many other maple varieties.
While some bonsai hobbyists report success with silver maples, the tree is regarded as a challenging bonsai subject. As with sugar maple, the growth habits of silver maple make leaf reduction and ramification more difficult achieve.
Think “free” when considering sugar maple and silver maple for bonsai. Working with collected specimens can be fun and educational, but your money is better spent on plants more suitable for the practice.
Another maple variety that enjoys popularity among bonsai practitioners is the field maple (Acer campestre). Native to Europe, Southwest Asia, and Northern Africa, the field maple has been planted extensively outside its original habitat, including in the United States and Australia. It is a common addition to parks and gardens, and has been naturalized locally in some areas.
The field maple works well for bonsai because it is a vigorous grower capable of developing a thick trunk quickly. This robust growth habit makes developing fine twig ramification more difficult than with the slower growing Japanese varieties, but it is achievable with careful pruning.
The fissured corky bark of the field maple, as well as its showy bright orange and yellow fall coloring add to its value as a bonsai subject.
Unfortunately, field maples are often difficult to find in nurseries, although specialty bonsai nurseries may offer them. If you happen to live in an area where they are native or naturalized, collecting a young specimen from the wild may be an option.
Caring for Maple Bonsai
Like junipers and elms, maples tend to have many leader branches and fibrous root systems. These are desirable characteristics for the practice of bonsai, making maples easy trees to work with – both above and below the ground.
Maples tend to get an early start when it comes to spring budding. As winter wanes, frequently check any maples in need of major pruning or repotting to ensure that the work can be completed before the trees bud out.
Maples of all types need what is called “root-run”. The term literally means “the space or area for root development”. On a practical level, this means that maples need more space than other species for root development, so they require deeper pots. A deeper pot keeps the soil a bit cooler, which is also advantageous for maples. To learn more about pots, check out our article on choosing pots for bonsai.
Locate your maple in full sun most of the year. However, in mid-summer, it prefers to receive either morning sun only or dappled sun all day.
Allow maples to dry out a bit – but not too much – between waterings. They are susceptible to root rot if watered excessively.
Maples are susceptible to insect pests such as aphids, scale, and borers. Diseases such as anthracnose, verticillium wilt and canker can sometimes be an issue. Keeping the tree in optimum health will go a long way toward warding off damage from pests and disease.
Leaf Pruning for Maple Bonsai
Maple bonsai are generally shaped through pruning rather than wiring. The goal with maples is to develop ramification, or numerous fine branching twigs. Leaf pruning, a common bonsai technique encourages ramification and reduction in leaf size.
Leaf pruning is performed on deciduous species and involves cutting off all the tree’s leaves. This stimulates the tree to produce a new, smaller set of leaves. It also results in the development of finer, more dense twigs and more intense fall color.
Most often, leaf pruning is done in late spring after the first set of leaves has hardened off. The leaves are completely cut off while leaving the leaf stems. Leaving the stems intact is important because the new leaf buds reside at the stem’s base and should not be disturbed. As twig ramification develops over time, the tree’s leaves will naturally become smaller.
Leaf pruning benefits the development of maple bonsai, at least in the initial years of training. However, the procedure puts stress on a tree, and should not be performed on sickly or recently repotted trees.
For those new to bonsai, Japanese and trident maples are the best species to focus on acquiring first. After gaining a bit of experience working with these very easy maples, the novice can progress to red or field maples before tackling a more challenging species such as sugar maple.
In this article we’ve explored the popularity of maples for bonsai and examined the bonsai potential of several maple species. We also provided an overview of maple bonsai care and specialized techniques commonly used with maples by hobbyists.