Japanese maples are handsome, versatile landscape trees. Taller cultivars make attractive shade trees while shorter cultivars are good specimen or accent trees. Their green, red or burgundy summer foliage changes to brilliant red, orange, copper or yellow in the fall. When planning a landscape around a Japanese maple, select plants that have the same sun, soil and water requirements.
Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 to 8 or 9 and range in height from 6 to 25 feet, depending on the cultivar. They are considered invasive in a few areas of the northeastern United States. All Japanese maples require soil that has lots or organic matter and supplemental water. They are not at all drought tolerant. In cooler climates, they can be grown in full sun or partial shade but in warmer climates they should be planted in partial, dappled or full shade. Due to their shallow root systems, shrubs should not be planted near them. They will compete for moisture and nutrients. Plant compatible herbaceous perennials and annuals instead.
Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia) and “Red Hobbit” columbine (Aquilegia “Red Hobbit”) go well with Japanese maples. They grow to a height and width of 1 to 1 1/2 feet, bloom in the spring and provide fine texture from spring to fall with their delicate, fern-type foliage. Fringed bleeding heart produces heart-shaped pink to pale purple-red flowers. It may bloom throughout the summer and early fall in cool-summer climates but usually stops when the temperatures rise. It is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9. “Red Hobbit” produces showy red and white bi-color flowers. It is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8. Fringed bleeding heart is toxic if large quantities are ingested, and it can cause minor skin irritation.
Impatiens (Impatiens spp.) and begonias (Begonia spp.) bloom all summer and go well with Japanese maples. The flowering plants range in height from 6 inches to 2 1/2 feet and are available in many different colors and forms, depending on the species or cultivar. New Guinea impatiens (Impatiens hawkeri) and bizzy lizzy (Impatiens walleriana) are hardy in USDA zones 10 and above but all impatiens are grown as annuals everywhere. Begonias are hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11 except for hardy begonias (Begonia grandis subsp. evansiana) and Peruvian begonias (Begonia octopetala), which are hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9. Tuberous begonias (Begonia x tuberhybrida) and wax begonias (Begonia semperflorens-cultorum) are mildly toxic if ingested.
“Ice Dance” sedge (Carex “Ice Dance”) and pig squeak (Bergenia cordifolia) are ground cover plants that do well when planted with Japanese maples. “Ice Dance” has 12-inch long, 1/2-inch wide variegated grass-blade type leaves that are deep green with a bright white strip up the edges. It is hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9. Pig squeak, or heart-leaved bergenia, has rounded, deep green, leathery leaves that grow to a length of 10 inches and width of 8 inches. The plant grows to a height of 1 foot and blooms in the spring, producing clusters of deep pink flowers on 16-inch high stems. In the winter, the leaves change to purple-bronze. It is hardy in USDA zones 3 to 8.