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WHEN IT COMES to autumn color, it’s all about maples. From our native big leaf (Acer macrophyllum) with its dinner-plate-size leaves, to delicate, feathery Japanese maples, you can count on fall fireworks.

And while nothing beats looking up into a canopy of leaves turning shades of flame, many gardeners lack space to grow the big guys. Even native vine maples grow 30 feet tall. Which is too big for most courtyard gardens, some city gardens, and for containers.

But gorgeous fall color can also happen closer to the ground, with no skimping on leafy beauty. Petite Japanese maples thrive tucked into a narrow border, planted close to the house or cascading down a rockery.

Japanese maples are eye-catching in every season. In spring, the new leaves come on folded like an intricate origami, slowly opening to reveal shrimp pink, crimson or chartreuse filigreed leaves. In summer the foliage adds airy texture to the garden as it turns to shades of soft green, burnished bronze, red or deep purple. In autumn they steal the show, and in winter they offer elegance of line and branch.

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As with other plants bred over so many years, the nomenclature of maples is confusing. Just know this: Most of the smallest maples are Japanese ones and, botanically, these are usually Acer palmatum, but also Acer japonicum. The cultivar name may be in Japanese or English.

One of my favorite small Japanese maples, which I’ve grown in a pot for a decade, has the ugly cultivar name of ‘Baldsmith.’ (A. palmatum dissectum ‘Baldsmith’). It belies its name with pretty pink spring foliage, soft green leaves shimmering with red tints in summer, and brilliant shades of yellow and orange in autumn.

When you’re going for small-scaled maples, shape is more important, though not as immediately apparent, as leaf color. ‘Baldsmith’ grows only about 5 feet high and wide in an umbrella shape, making it perfect to grow in a big, round pot.

Even smaller is the extravagantly layered red laceleaf Japanese maple ‘Orangeola’ (A. palmatum ‘Orangeola’), an ideal container tree because it doesn’t spread as wide as most weepers.

The lion’s head maple (A. palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) is seriously textural, with curly, crinkled green foliage that grows in dense, swirly tufts. It’s a sculptural little tree whose leaves hold their color in full sun, and it turns vivid red in autumn.

If you’re partial to green-leafed maples, check out A. palmatum ‘Seiryu.’ It’s one of the most diminutive upright cultivars, with finely dissected lime-green leaves that turn purplish-brown, then scarlet in autumn.

The most unusually colored little maple must be A. palmatum ‘Deshojo,’ with leaves that unfurl salmon-pink and stay that color through midsummer. The foliage greens up before turning orange-scarlet in autumn. A gauzy little tree, it tops out at 7 to 9 feet.

The butterfly Japanese maple (A. palmatum ‘Butterfly’) sports unusually pale variegation. This showboat of a shrublike tree has green leaves deeply margined in silvery white, and turns magenta in autumn.

Japanese maples are remarkably adaptable to different kinds of soils, and most can take more sun than their fragile-looking leaves suggest. Just remember to water regularly, especially when potted.

Other trees perform the same seasonal dance of morphing color and baring branches, but none with the dramatic grace of Japanese maples.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at

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