There are around 100 species of maple trees out there. Two of the most common choices for yards around North American are the red maple and the Japanese maple. While both are gorgeous, particularly in the fall, they are quite different trees. We will take a look the red maple vs Japanese maple to help you determine their differences. 

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

The red maple can grow up to 90 feet with a width of 40 feet. You will have to be careful where you place it because of its size. However, it will provide a generous amount of shade near the house when mature.

It is a fast grower making it a good choice for people who want a shaded yard relatively quickly. The growth rate can be as high as two feet per year.

This tree will drop its seeds known as “helicopters” or “whirlers” in the spring. These can create an absolute mess in the yard including eventual germination of seeds in areas where there is soil. The amount of seeds produced by this maple each year will vary.

The tree commonly shifts from red to green into the summer. In the fall, leaf color can vary by tree with brilliant red or yellow colors.

This maple able to grow in hardiness zones 3-9. It prefers sunny locations with a minimum of six hours of direct sun hitting it per day.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

As its name suggests, the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) comes from Asia. Specifically, from Japan, South Korea, North Korea, southeast Russia, and Mongolia. Its height can reach up to about 25 feet with a spread of about 25 feet. However, there are many small varieties of this tree with some being  shrub in size. 

One of the beautiful features of this tree is that it often has multiple trunks. This contributes to its admired complexity and ability to be a focal point in almost any yard. Additionally, there can be significant natural variability in appearance between trees in regard to shape, color, and leaf size. 

This is one of the best shade tolerant trees of the maples because in nature it is often overshadowed by larger trees. Due to its shade tolerance and relatively tame size, it is versatile in where it can be placed. It is not uncommon to find them close to a home or in smaller gardens unlike the red maple that needs space. 

There are over 1,000 cultivars of the Japanese maple creating a mind boggling array of choices if you opt for one in your yard. You can get an idea of the variety available by viewing pictures of them at mrmaple.com (scroll to the bottom that website to see the images). 

Red Maple vs Japanese Maple

The table below outlines the key differences and some similarities between the red maple and the Japanese maple. 

TreeRed Maple (Acer rubrum)Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
Height (approximate)40-90 feet15-25 feet
Spread40 feet15-25 feet
Growth SpeedFastSlow
Growth ShapeOften OvalOften Roundish
USDA Hardiness Zones3 to 95 to 8
SunFull to some shadeFull to some shade
WaterMedium to WetMedium to wet but well drained
Fall Leaf ColorRed to YellowReddish-Purple
Summer Leaf ColorDark GreenGreen to Reddish-Purple
Leaf Length2-6 inches2-5 inches
DeciduousYesYes

Red or Japanese Maple for your Yard?

We would select the red maple if shade was a primary factor for our discussion. This is the perfect tree to have a picnic under, maybe take a nap beneath its shade, or possibly to use to block the sun from a patio or deck. It certainly will make a statement with its beauty in whatever space will allow it the flourish.

We would look to add the Japanese maple to our yard because of its versatility. This tree provides such a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors that it is almost impossible not to be able to find one to fit into the landscape of almost any yard. The Japanese maple will not get nearly as tall as the red maple, however, a large tree isn’t always necessary and in some cases may be a burden in some yards.

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