Do I dare plant a Japanese maple in Illinois?

After much thought, I decided to plant a Japanese maple in my yard. I have always loved the tree my mother has had for 40 years. However, my mother lives in North Carolina, a climate more conducive to growing this beautiful, but delicate, tree. Although I was nervous about the decision to plant a tree that requires more care in zone 5 gardens, there are considerations when selecting a Japanese maple that can greatly improve the chances of the tree surviving and thriving in our northern Illinois climate.

There is a wide variety of Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) with many shapes, leaf colors, and sizes. Some have single trunks and others are multistemmed with leaf colors ranging between red, yellow, pink and green. Autumn colors tend toward flaming yellow, orange, red and purple before falling in the winter.

They grow best in moist, well-drained soil and do not tolerate drought or salt spray. Light exposure should be partial sun with some shade, preferably in the afternoon. Japanese maples grow slowly, especially if not exposed to enough sun, and are susceptible to leaf scorch if growing in areas that are too sunny or dry. The biggest challenges are protecting these maples from wind and late spring frosts. As you know, these are challenges we face in northern Illinois every year.

Here are ways you can address the concerns specific to our area. First, make sure you have a planting site that meets the above criteria. Planting on the east side of a house with sheltering structures or plantings may be helpful. Next, choose a cultivar that is likely to survive our conditions. According to The Morton Arboretum, some known to be successful in zone 5 include Bloodgood (my choice and considered to be the hardiest), Crimson Queen, Tamukeyama, and Viridis Japanese maples.

After planting, keep the soil slightly moist. Keep 3 to 4 inches of organic mulch in place in early spring to encourage later leafing out which reduces late frost damage. Be sure to keep mulch away from the tree trunk. Avoid pruning in the spring as maples will “bleed” a large amount of sap.

Although still nervous about daring to plant a Japanese maple, I am already enjoying this lacy, delicate, deep purple-leaved tree outside my kitchen window. I hope to see it for many years to come!

Darlie Simerson is a University of Illinois Extension master gardener for Kane County. The “Learning to Grow” column runs weekly during warmer months of the year. Call the extension office at 630-584-6166 for more information. Feedback on this column can be sent to editorial@kcchronicle.com.