The Six Best Japanese Maples for Fall Color

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Acer palmatum 'Orido Nishiki'
Acer palmatum ‘Orido Nishiki’

When it comes to Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) for fall color, there’s hardly a bad one in the bunch, but some are simply stunning, while others are take-your-breath-away gorgeous.

Over the 16 years I worked at Ammon Nursery in Northern Kentucky, we grew more than 60 varieties of Japanese maples.  Mostly we sold the popular red-foliaged types–either weeping, dissected-leaf selections like ‘Crimson Queen’, ‘Tamukeyama’, ‘Inabe shidare’, or ‘Red Dragon’, or upright, non-dissected types like ‘Bloodgood’ or ‘Emperor I’.

There are better types for fall color, though.

I would pick a green-leaved Japanese maple over a red one any day for fall color.

The red varieties do turn a radiant color in fall, but they are quiet about it, slowly turning up the volume until one day they have noticeably brightened.  Briefly they glow crimson-red and then drop their leaves.

Green-leaved or variegated Japanese maples turn more brilliant, varied colors over a longer period of time.  Here are 6 of my favorites:

acer palmatum japanese maple green ones best for fall color
You don’t need to buy a rare selection to have awesome fall color.  Even a plain-Jane unnamed seedling Acer palmatum can supply green, yellow, pink, purple, and orange-red color in fall.  It’s hard to believe that this is what actually grows wild in Japan.  Can you imagine a Japanese maple forest?


acer palmatum dissectum viridis best japanese maple for fall color
Acer palmatum var. dissectum ‘Viridis’, a weeper with finely cut green leaves, is a fireball of hot colors in fall.  Red-leaved cultivars like ‘Crimson Queen’ may out-sell it by a landslide, but ‘Viridis’ has far more personality.  ‘Seiryu’ is an upright version of ‘Viridis’ with the same sparkle.


acer palmatum orido nishiki variegated japanese maple
‘Orido nishiki’ is the best variegated type I have seen.  In spring and summer, its foliage is green splashed with pink and white, and even the bark is variegated!  It grows a thick, dense crop of foliage that makes an outstanding display of saltwater-taffy-yellow, orange, and pink in fall.  All colors, plus green and purple, may be present–even in the same leaf.


acer palmatum kihachijo japanese maple best fall color

‘Kihachijo’ is a favorite of mine, with a bright green mane that turns sunset-colors of yellow, rose, red, and peach in fall.  It leafs out a bit later in the spring than the others and might dodge a late freeze that zaps some others.  As the plant matures, the bark develops distinctive vertical white stripes, like a snakebark maple. It is an upright/rounded grower to 15 feet.


acer higasayama japanese maple fall color

Higasayama’ has multi-color leaves that emerge in a unique white and green checkerboard pattern with accents of pink.  In fall the leaf centers usually become a rosy red and the margins golden yellow, but in this picture they have turned all sorts of patchy colors, like paints running together.  It is narrowly upright in youth, but wider with age.


acer palmatum osakazuki fiery red fall color

‘Osakazuki’ is perhaps the most fiercely colored Japanese maple of all in autumn—an eyeball-burning scarlet.  Like all of these beautiful Japanese maples, it prefers moist but well-drained soil and dappled shade during the hottest part of the day.  Show it a little love and it will not disappoint!

What are your favorite Japanese maples for fall fireworks?


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7 Responses

  1. Blocker Don
    Blocker Don at | | Reply

    A selection of tree that is so underused in the landscape. Japanese Maples are so much more than uprights and weepers in red. Ky really needs a display of these to demonstrate the fall color among other ornamental features. Great work Amy on highlighting these plants. Note as well all of the selections you mentioned are available in production so they can be had if they are wanted.

  2. Elizabeth Mundy, President, Acer Acres Inc.

    Thank you, Amy, for highlighting a few of the vast array of underused green Japanese Maple cultivars. While the reds certainly have significant landscape value, the greens are infinitely more interesting, not only in fall, but in spring with their flamboyant multi-hued flush and in winter with varying bark color. A stroll in any season through our collection of 400 plus cultivars never fails to take my breath even after my 25 years of operation. I suggest you seek out an A.p. Shiranami, my personal favorite, which is hardly seen in production any more. Many of these lovely cultivars would be lost to the trade if not for the diligence of collectors. The species is so incredibly variable that hosts of new Japanese maples are introduced each year, so the older ones become passe. Best wishes and keep up the good work. Elizabeth

  3. Ted
    Ted at | | Reply

    I saw one today in the late day sunlight that almost made me crash my vehicle as I drove by. I am going back tomorrow to take pictures. One of the most stunning displays of fall foliage I’ve ever seen.

  4. Richard Sheltren
    Richard Sheltren at | | Reply

    I’m in the company of wisdom. I’m looking for info regarding “secara nisiki.” I got nothing. Just asking

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