How To Get A Japanese Maple To Thrive In Full Sun

Vibrant red japanese maple tree in full autumn glory display, viewed from the side, against background of yellow and green leaves, and with colorful fallen leaves on the ground

Most gardeners and arborists recommend that Japanese maples be planted in what is often referred to as “dappled sunlight” or partial shade. Some recommendations even give different sunlight guidelines for parts of the country, such as full sun in some states and shade in others.  

Japanese maple trees thrive best in partial shade – but some can tolerate more sun. Bloodgood, coral bark, crimson queen, orangeola, and Shishigashira Japanese maple trees are varieties with a higher sun tolerance. If your Japanese maple is already in full sun, make sure it has plenty of water.

While you cannot plant your Japanese maple tree and walk away if it is in full sun (as you might be able to do if it is planted in dappled light), you can put forth some extra effort to grow a Japanese maple in full sunlight.

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What Is A Japanese Maple Tree?

Japanese maple trees come in multiple varieties, but, overall, they are smaller, ornamental versions of the standard, large maple trees found predominantly in the northeastern United States.

Japanese maple trees originated in, as their name indicates, Japan, and they are also native to China, parts of Russia, and Korea.

Despite being native to lands far away from the United States, Japanese maple trees generally grow very well here and have become a favorite of gardeners for their ability to bring some shade, beautiful and interesting colors, and varying shapes to gardens and yards of all sizes.

Because they are much smaller than most other varieties of maple tree, Japanese maples are able to be placed in small yards, small gardens, and even containers.

Planting these trees is a great way to bring those characteristic maple leaves and fall colors into a smaller space without having to plant a large red or silver maple that could reach a height of 80 feet or more. 

While Japanese maple trees do not like very hot climates, they can appear to die in the winter months if the temperatures are very cold, according to Goodlettsville Parks and Recreation. But they are not gone, and they will grow back in the spring! 

According to the Portland Urban Forestry, there are over 120 different types of Japanese maple trees.

That means there are different kinds for different purposes, and different kinds for different environments. Some trees are better suited to sunlight than others, making it easier for you to plant a Japanese maple tree even if you have a varying amount of sunlight in different parts of your yard or garden. 

Most recommendations will state that Japanese maples are easily scorched and burned by direct sunlight and high temperatures, which is true. But if you are determined to plant a Japanese maple tree in a very sunny spot, there are some measures you can take to set yourself up as best as possible for a thriving tree. 

Some of the basic things you can do include:

  • Choose a type of Japanese maple tree that is already predisposed to grow better in full sun.
  • Prep your soil so it will keep your Japanese maple well-watered at all times.
  • Have equipment on hand to allow you to protect your Japanese maple from the sun.
  • Adjust your tree’s environment when possible.
  • Understand the coloration of your particular Japanese maple tree so you will know at any given point in the year whether its leaves look healthy or whether they might be showing signs of distress that could mean that you need to change something about the way the tree is being shaded or watered.

Next, we will examine a few different varieties of Japanese maple that are better suited for full sun than many other types of Japanese maple. This is your first step in planting a Japanese maple that can thrive in full sun!

Japanese maple (acer palmatum)

Choosing The Best Variety Of Japanese Maple Tree For Full Sun

Perhaps the easiest way to make sure your Japanese maple tree can thrive in full sun is to choose a variety that is one of the more sun-tolerant species.

Some Japanese maples do better in full sun than others, so you can get a head start on growing your Japanese maple tree in full sun just by picking the right tree from the start. 

According to the University of Washington Botanic Gardens, there are actually a number of species of Japanese maple that can survive in full sun, provided the right steps are taken regarding watering, irrigation, and planting.

In general, Japanese maple trees with green leaves are those that will do better in full sun, whereas the red-leafed varieties are more likely to burn in direct sunlight.

Varieties Of Japanese Maple That Can Tolerate Full Sun

These are some specific varieties of Japanese maple trees that are most likely to thrive in full sun. We are also including information about the leaves and colorings of these trees, as knowing what their typical year-long leaf cycle looks like can help you identify problems as soon as they occur.

If your tree’s leaves change color too soon, change the wrong color, or start to fall off early, those can all be signs of distress. Distress can mean that the tree needs more water, the mulch is wrong in some way, or the tree needs some shade for a while.

Keep an eye on any Japanese maple you are growing in full sun, as the extreme conditions make this tree more vulnerable to problems than one grown in dappled light or partial shade. 

Here are some types of Japanese maple tree that are good choices for growing in full sun:

The Bloodgood Japanese Maple Tree

Bloodgood japanese maple tree
Bloodgood Japanese Maple Tree

The bloodgood is a variety of Japanese maple tree that, according to Bellarmine University, actually needs some direct sunlight part of the day.

Unfortunately, it also needs some afternoon shade, but if you are able to provide a location where it can be at least partially shaded, this tree is likely to survive the bright light of direct sun.

Bloodgood Japanese maples are one of the larger varieties of Japanese maple. While they are nowhere near as big as standard maple trees, this variety of Japanese maple can grow as tall as 15 to 25 feet.

Like many trees, the bloodgood gets its name from the color of its leaves. Though the green leaf varieties of Japanese maple are often the ones that thrive most in full sun, the bloodgood is an exception. Its leaves are red all year round, with deep, dark colors in the spring and summer and bright red colors in the fall.

If you like red leaves, this might be the perfect tree for you!

The Coral Bark Japanese Maple Tree

The coral bark Japanese maple is the common name for the Sango-kaku Japanese maple. It is one of the green-leaved varieties of Japanese maple that is most able to tolerate full sun, so this is one to put at the top of your list. 

This tree is able to be planted in full sun, as long as it is kept in moist soil, according to the North Carolina State University Extension. If you are willing and able to be very diligent about keeping the soil around your Japanese maple tree well-watered at all times, this might be a good variety to try for full sun. 

The coral bark Japanese maple gets its name from the color of its bark in fall and winter, which literally appears to be the reddish color of coral. The trees are, like most Japanese maples, slow-growing and rather small.

The coral bark is particularly well-suited to gardens or yards that you want to add some color to in winter, as the bark is most colorful during the cold seasons after the leaves have fallen off the tree. 

Coral bark Japanese maples have light green and yellow leaves in the spring and summer; in the fall, their foliage changes to a bright yellow color followed by an almost pink color in winter before the leaves finally fall to reveal that characteristic bark. 

This tree can lend an unusual and very interesting aesthetic to your yard or garden. 

The Crimson Queen Japanese Maple

According to Washington State University’s Clark County Extension, the Crimson Queen Japanese maple tree can grow in full sun, though, like most Japanese maple trees, it prefers to be in the shade on hot afternoons.

If it is exposed to direct sunlight in the hot summer afternoon sun, the leaves can be scorched, as is a common problem with Japanese maple trees. 

The Crimson Queen variety of Japanese maple is yet another variety that gets its name from the colors of its leaves. Its leaves are dark red in the summertime and then lighten to a brighter red in the fall. 

This variety of Japanese maple is on the smaller side, so it is ideal for small gardens or containers. The Crimson Queen usually only grows to a height of about 6 to 10 feet.

This small tree might be a perfect addition to your garden, and its small size makes it easier to water and protect from too much sun. 

The Orangeola Japanese Maple Tree

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Acer palmatum var. dissectum, ‘Orangeola’

The orangeola is a variety of Japanese maple tree that is very tolerant of high temperatures and hot climates. This makes it a great tree to plant in a spot that receives full sun.

Once again, the tree in question was given its name because of the colors of its leaves. Orangeola Japanese maples have a mix of orange and green leaves in springtime that turn dark purple before turning green again in the summer, then orange and purple again. The fall foliage of these trees is a striking bright orange, lending the tree its name.

The foliage of this tree is very interesting and changes a lot throughout the year, making this tree a favorite. It is also one of the fastest growing varieties of Japanese maple, so it might work well if you are looking to plant a tree that will reach maturity quickly. 

Orangeola Japanese maples grow to be about 3 to 5 feet tall but they are very wide trees, reaching a width of up to 8 feet. You can therefore plant this variety of Japanese maple in a small corner of a garden or in a container.

If you are looking for a small tree with stunning foliage that can survive heat better than most other types of Japanese maple, look no further than the orangeola.

The Shishigashira Japanese Maple Tree (Lion’s Head Japanese Maple Tree)

Acer palmatum 'shishigashira'
Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’

Also known as the Lion’s Head Japanese maple, the Shishigashira is a variety of Japanese maple that is more sun-tolerant than most.

According to the Washington State University Clark County Extension, the Lion’s Head maple, as it is commonly called, does well in full sun. It will be easiest to grow with some dappled light or shade, but the full sun helps its leaves produce the most vibrant colors in the fall. 

The Lion’s Head Japanese maple is a medium-sized Japanese maple, growing to about 10 to 15 feet tall. Its leaves are green in spring and summer, then they turn orange and dark orange in the fall. The tree earned its nickname of “Lion’s Head” because the leaves are often so vibrant that they appear like a golden lion mane. 

If you want to choose a Japanese maple that does not need as much protection in the shade as other varieties, the Lion’s Head is a great choice. 

Some General Guidelines For Planting Japanese Maple Trees In Sunny Locations

No matter what variety of Japanese maple you have chosen, planting one in full sun means that you will have to take some extra steps to help your tree thrive in these difficult conditions. Missouri State University recommends that Japanese maples are planted in full sun only if the soil is kept moist and is also mulched. 

Keep in mind that leaves can be scorched and sunburned no matter how much water you give your tree, so taking care during the summertime to protect your tree can be quite the task.

Acer in autumn

Providing The Right Amount Of Water For Your Japanese Maple Tree’s Soil 

One of the most important things you can do for a Japanese maple tree that is planted in full sun is make sure it is adequately watered and that the soil it is planted in is kept moist but also drained.

Using Mulch To Retain Moisture In The Soil

It’s good to use mulch to keep the soil moist and keep the roots of your tree from overheating.

Follow these guidelines to help keep your Japanese maple tree’s soil hydrated and healthy:

  1. Choose an organic mulch, like this Rio Hamza Trading Pine Bark Mulch.
  2. The best time to apply mulch is springtime while making sure that your maple tree is well mulched during the hottest days.
  3. Mulch as wide in diameter as the thick of the tree’s canopy.
  4. Mulch your Japanese maple no thicker than 4 inches. Doing so can actually prevent oxygen from getting to your tree’s roots! It can also make the tree too hot, which is the opposite of what you are trying to achieve by providing the mulch in the first place.
  5. Don’t pile up mulch on the tree trunk. Create a buffer zone between the tree trunk and where the mulch starts, making sure that the root flare is completely free of mulch materials.

Remember that you will need to check on the mulch periodically, as it can get moved or disrupted by weather and wildlife. You will also need to replace or reapply mulch every so often, at least once a year. It is recommended to make this annual chore a springtime task. 

Placing mulch around the base of your Japanese maple tree can go a long way in preventing some of the drying problems that occur due to exposure to direct sunlight. If you plan to put your Japanese maple tree in full sun, mulching is a very important step in helping your tree thrive.

Setting Up A Regular Watering System

Another crucial step in helping your Japanese maple tree thrive in full sun is to provide adequate water for it, particularly during the hot summer months.

You should water your tree either in the early morning or in the evening. There are a number of ways to water your tree, but you should choose whichever method is most likely to result in regular watering of your tree.

You can use an installed sprinkler system, a garden hose with a sprinkler attachment, a soaker hose, or even an automated timer on your soaker hose or garden hose sprinkler.

Whichever method you choose, try to make it as foolproof as possible so your Japanese maple is never without adequate water. This is key to helping it thrive as it grows in full sun.

You should also make sure to water deeply as well, so that the water hits the bottom of the tree’s roots.

Giving Your Japanese Maple Tree A Break From The Sun

While many of these techniques can help you grow a Japanese maple tree in full sun, it might be a good idea to give your tree a break from all that direct sunlight every now and then.

One way to do this is to cover your tree during some of the hottest, sunniest hours of summer with a tree cover normally used to protect trees from frost, like this Sunpro Plant Cover.

You can cover your tree just as if you were preparing it for winter, but you can leave this cover on for just an afternoon or even give your Japanese maple tree a break in the shade for a few days. 

Another creative solution is to use shade netting, like this Garden Expert Black Sun Plant Mesh, to create a sort of awning over your Japanese maple tree in the afternoons.

You probably shouldn’t just drape the mesh directly on top of your tree, as this has the potential to harm the leaves and twigs, but you can use sticks or stakes to prop it up over the tree and provide some relief from the sun. 

These methods would be particularly useful in the summer, when bright, direct sunlight can combine with heat to both dry out your Japanese maple and also scorch it, damaging the leaves irreparably. 

Japanese maple seedlings

That’s A Wrap!

Now you are ready to choose a type of Japanese maple tree and plant it in your garden or yard, even if the chosen location is in full sun.

Make sure you are prepared with the proper equipment for mulching, watering, and perhaps even providing some shade for your tree. As long as you are diligent about keeping your tree hydrated, keeping the soil around it moist, and make sure the leaves are not experiencing too much scorching or sunburn, your Japanese maple tree can thrive in full sun. 

If you’re still not sure if your Japanese maple needs sun or shade, here’s how to tell!

Enjoy your Japanese maple tree!

References

Shaughnessy, D., & Polomski, B. (2006). “Maple.”

Triolo, V. “The Japanese Maple: A Deciduous Tree Graft.”

Julie, A. (2022). Bloodgood Japanese Maple Tree. Findings from the Field5(1), 63.

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