Japanese maple tree photos are some of my best selling images as a fine art landscape and nature photographer. Trees are one of my favourite subjects to photograph, as they command my attention and respect as living, breathing pillars of life. And with over 73,000 documented species around the world, it would seem an impossible task to choose an outright favourite.
But if I was to base my choice on a group that consistently turns heads with their spectacular colours, dignified beauty, elegance, and storied history, it would have to be the Japanese maple tree.
Here you will find a selection of fine art Japanese maple photos from my collection, all captured in various gardens on beautiful Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada along with some interesting history and details about these fascinating trees.
The 'Acer Palmatum'
The Japanese maple or 'acer palmatum' is native to Japan, Korea, and China with some specimens also found in eastern Mongolia and southeast Russia. Swedish doctor and botanist Carl Peter Thunberg travelled to Japan in the late 18th century and named the maples 'palmatum' because the leaves resembled a hand, similar to the Japanese names 'kaede' (frog's hand) and 'momiji' (babies hand).
Cultivated in Japan for centuries, many travelers and botanists began to collect specimens and import them overseas where they became very popular with gardeners. As a result, thousands of new cultivars and variations have been grown in temperate areas of Europe and North America since the 1800's.
The Maple Society is an international community of expert and amateur maple enthusiasts dedicated to furthering the knowledge and promoting the culture of all maple species. A membership for this UK based non-profit group provides a wealth of benefits and networking opportunities for all lovers of maple trees, and also includes a North American division.
Forms and Leaf Types
Japanese maples are a highly diverse species with a large variety of forms, including upright, vase, weeping, cascading, dwarf, and shrub cultivars ranging from 1.5 to 52 feet tall. An impressive assortment of leaf shapes and colours give them dramatic appeal, as many varieties have red or purple leaves all summer which make them beautiful focal points in any garden.
These charming maples are the most desirable and sought after garden trees due to the enormous range of sizes and colours that are sure to compliment almost any yard, even if you have space restrictions.
Autumn is when most Japanese maples really shine, as their canopies transform into stunning shades of orange, red, and yellow. The weeping Japanese cutleaf maple (below, also called laceleaf) has very delicate and feathery leaves which are 'dissected' and divided into segments.
Rarely growing more than twelve feet tall, these laceleaf varieties have a distinct dome-shaped canopy and multiple twisting, rhythmic branches that have become synonymous with oriental gardens. The window is short to capture these magnificent trees at peak autumn colour, where many specimens can turn from full green to vibrant orange in less than one week.
Most Japanese maples have multiple trunks that join close to the ground, as seen on this upright broom-shaped specimen (above). Most species look especially impressive when they are planted on slopes or near ponds where their canopies are easier to admire with a layering effect and beautiful reflections in the water.
Maples are known to be incredibly variated, where they can exhibit different leaf shapes and colours even compared to their parent tree. They tend to be very slow-growing at less than 12" to 24" per year while being very long-lived, often with a life span of 100 years or more.
This statuesque cutleaf maple (above) has been documented from its origins and was planted in 1913, making it almost 110 years old. Many hours were spent with my camera beneath this tree over the course of two days, admiring its form and waiting for the perfect lighting conditions to illuminate the stunning orange canopy.
The story of its long life is fascinating, offering beauty to visitors for over a century. The delicate twisting branches are some of the most beautiful I have seen, and give this wonderful tree a distinct personality and sense of historic and noble permanence.
Above, a close-up of this 'Baby Lace' variety shows the delicate, dissected leaves in its pink and green spring colours, which turn mostly green in summer, and finally to orange, red, or yellow in the fall.
Where They Grow
In their natural environment, Japanese maples often grow in the understory of larger forest trees, making them quite shade tolerant. As a result they tend to grow best in locations with partial shade and adequate water, as too much heat and sun can cause the leaves to shrivel.
They make a wonderful addition to almost any yard or garden, but if you have limited space, it is also possible to grow them in pots as they are easy to keep small with simple pruning methods.
And for those who are more adventurous, Japanese maples are perfect to grow as Bonsai. This ancient Japanese artform grows miniature trees in pots that mimic the shape of full size trees.
The west coast of British Columbia is a popular region in Canada where Japanese maple trees are able to thrive, due to the temperate Pacific climate. If you have considered planting a Japanese maple in your yard or garden, it is important to know that most species grow best in plant hardiness zones 5 through 8.
Note that the Canadian and USDA Plant Hardiness Zone maps do not line up perfectly, and are both based on imperfect systems, therefore should be interpreted as a general guide only.
There are a few varieties that will grow in a colder zone 4, and some into zone 9. As a safeguard, it is always best to consult with an experienced local botanist who can give you a better idea if your chosen plant species can survive and thrive in your area of the country.
Although many maples grow best with partial shade, there are also some species that will also thrive in full sun.
Visit A Japanese Garden
Japanese gardens, which are deeply grounded in tradition and culture specific to Japan, have been featured in public places and estates in Canada since the early 1900's. The four oldest Japanese gardens in North America were all designed by Isaburo Kishida of Yokohama, a Japanese gardener who arrived in Victoria, British Columbia in 1907.
Other notable Japanese gardens in Canada include:
• Nitobe Memorial Garden, University of British Columbia, Vancouver
• Nikka Yuko Japanese Garden, Lethbridge, Alberta
• University of Alberta Botanic Garden, near Edmonton, Alberta
• Montreal Botanical Garden, Montreal, Quebec
If you wish to visit a garden in the United States, here is a complete list of beautiful and historical Japanese gardens in America.
Whether we visit them to experience their beauty or symbolism, Japanese gardens provide us with a place of refuge and reflection. Typical gardens include water ponds with carp or koi fish, ornamental rocks, stone lanterns, bridges, and specific plants and trees.
Each of these components have a symbolic significance, reinforcing values associated with harmony, rejuvenation, calm, unity, and the honouring of nature.
Maple Leaf Culture and Tradition
The Japanese maple has been viewed as a symbol of dignity, beauty, and grace for thousands of years in Japan. The trees and leaves have been prominent subjects of poetry and literature dating back to Heian times around the 8th century AD, when large collections of poetry from the time period were dedicated to autumn leaves.
Maple leaves are commonly chosen as motifs in fabric for the national dress of Japan, the kimono. And in many parts of the country, the leaves are used as an edible snack. They are traditionally cured in a salt barrel for a year, then deep fried in batter for a crisp and sweet treat called momiji-tempura.
In Japan many citizens practice Shintoism, which can be regarded as a nature religion, with the belief that supernatural entities or spirits inhabit all things. A common custom called 'momiji-gari', which translates to 'autumn leaf hunting' has been popular for centuries, where people journey to the mountains and valleys to view the maples in their brilliant colours each autumn.
In a similar way that many North Americans enjoy travelling to certain areas of the country to view the spectacular fall foliage, in Japan the excursions are regarded as a communion with the spirits that live within nature.
Japanese maple trees are revered around the world for their beauty and have been a symbol of charm and grace in many Asian cultures for millennia. The diversity of these impressive trees make them a popular addition to almost any yard or garden.
Many variations will also change colour throughout the year in spring, summer, and fall and are commonly chosen for their eye-catching appeal.
Ancient history and tradition surrounds these remarkable trees, which we are now able to enjoy throughout the world due to the dedication of botanists who continue to expand and nurture the 'Acer' culture and knowledge.
Whether adding a specimen to your own yard or taking the time to visit a Japanese garden, you are sure to enjoy the charm of these special trees, especially in autumn when they transform into living works of art; an experience not to be missed.