Growing Japanese Red Maple Trees from Seed

Published: 15th February 2011
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Japanese red maple trees are some of the most prized ornamental plants for many plant lovers. Gardeners absolutely love them, and the wide assortment of Japanese maples ensures that there is a one of these gorgeous trees suitable for just about any garden, large or small.

Because there are so many varieties, it is important to know at least a little bit about the botanical names of Japanese maples so youíll know what to look for at a nursery. Common names can vary, but Latin names will help you determine exactly what sort of Japanese maple tree you are buying. Donít be intimidated because itís not as difficult as it may sound.

Letís begin with the botanical name for any maple tree, which is Acer. Any maple tree in a nursery will be identified as an Acer, whether it is a Japanese maple, a sugar maple or a Norway maple.

The botanical name for a Japanese maple tree is Acer palmatum, while a weeping laceleaf Japanese maple with very fine, narrow leaves is called an Acer palmatum dissectum. A Japanese red maple tree will be identified as Acer palmatum Atropurpureum.

It is actually easy to grow Japanese maples from seed, but the seeds do require a pretreatment process before they can be planted. And not all Japanese maple seeds will grow up to be exactly like their parent plant.

Both the Acer palmatum and the Acer palmatum Atropurpureum can be grown from seed, while the Acer palmatum dissectum is propagated through grafting. Most Japanese maples will produce seeds once they are mature, which can take up to ten years in some cases. But growing Japanese maple trees from seed will not ensure that the seedlings will grow up to be exactly like the parent plant. If a laceleaf Japanese maple produces seeds at all, its seedlings are most likely to produce ordinary Acer palmatum seedlings. To reproduce a weeping laceleaf Japanese maple, it must be grafted.

Seeds collected from a Japanese maple with green leaves, which would be an Acer palmatum, will produce seedlings with green leaves. Now thereís nothing wrong with a green Acer palmatum, but it isnít generally the most desirable sort of Japanese maple. However, a green Japanese maple seedling makes good rootstock that can be use for grafting some of the nicer, more desirable varieties onto it.

However, if you collect and grow seeds from a Japanese maple with red leaves, an Acer palmatum Atropurpureum, thereís a good chance that many of those seedlings will have red leaves. Some may keep their red leaves throughout the spring and most of the summer, but Japanese red maple trees grown from seed do tend to lose some of their bright color as the season progresses.

If you want to try your hand at growing a Japanese red maple tree from seed, the first thing you need to do is find some seeds. Keep an eye out for a Japanese maple that keeps its red color throughout the growing season. Seeds from such a tree will have the best odds of producing seedlings with red leaves.

You may find a nice red Japanese maple in a neighborís yard, in a cemetery, or perhaps the local library or your bank will have one growing in their landscape. Wherever you find a tree, always ask the owner for permission before gathering the seeds. Chances are they will agree to let you collect some of the seeds.

The seeds should be collected only after they are ripe. Most Japanese maple trees produce seeds that ripen in the fall, but there are some varieties that will ripen and drop their seeds in the spring. Observe the tree closely to determine when its seeds ripen and are ready to be collected.

The seeds of a Japanese maple tree look much like the seeds of any other maple tree, only smaller. Maple tree seeds are the "helicopter" seeds children like to play with to watch them spin to the ground. When the seeds are ripe, their wings will begin to dry and turn brown.

Collect the ripe seeds and clean them by breaking off the little wing that is attached to each seed. The wing is not necessary for germination; it is there only to allow the seed to fly to the ground.

Before the seeds can germinate, they need to go through a pretreatment process. Like the seeds of many other ornamental plants, Japanese maple seeds have a hard outer coating that must be softened before moisture can penetrate the seed and begin the germination process. But until it is time to start the pretreatment process, the seeds can be stored in a dry place at room temperature.

Try to time the whole germination process so that once the seeds are stratified, they can be planted outside in the spring after the danger of frost has passed. To get the timing right, pick the date on your calendar when the danger of frost has typically passed for your area, and count backwards on the calendar the total number of days the seeds will be in both the 70-day cold stratification and the 90-day warm stratification. Mark that day on your calendar to begin the pretreatment process.

Pretreating the seeds is a very simple process. Simply place the cleaned seeds in a small container, then fill the container with warm or hot tap water and allow them to soak in the water for about 24 hours. Donít get caught up in trying to find the perfect temperature for the water. Some professionals in the seed industry insist that the water should be as hot as your morning coffee, while others say lukewarm water about the temperature of a baby bottle will do the trick just fine. As the water sits, it will gradually cool to room temperature while the seeds soak in it.

Once the seeds have been pretreated, they are ready to move on to the next step in the germination process. Get some peat moss and some sand in roughly equal parts Ė it doesnít have to be exact. Moisten this mixture, but donít get it soaking wet. Then place the damp mixture into a small plastic zip-top bag and mix in the pretreated seeds. Seal the bag so it retains the moisture inside, and store it at room temperature for 90 days. This will be a warm stratification for the seeds. Store the bag away from sunlight so the light doesnít heat up the bag and cook the seeds inside.

After the bag has been stored at room temperature for 90 days, it can then be placed in the refrigerator for another 70 days. This 70-day period will simulate wintertime for the seeds, and is referred to as cold stratification. Be careful to not keep the bag too far in the back of the refrigerator where it might freeze, because freezing will slow down or even stop the stratification process. The seeds need to remain cold, but not frozen.

While the seeds are still in the bag of moist peat and sand, check them occasionally to see if any have begun to sprout. Any seeds that have begun to sprout will have a little white "tail" peeking out from the seed, which is a root that has begun to grow. If more than ten percent of the seeds have begun to sprout, they should all be planted right away, even if they must be planted indoors in a flat.

If you can see no sprouted seeds at the completion of the 70-day cold stratification process, remove the bag from the refrigerator and keep it at room temperature for a few days, out of direct sunlight. Many times the warmth will stimulate the seeds to begin sprouting. Once a portion of the seeds have sprouted, they can all be planted out.

To plant the seeds, choose a location for the seedlings and spread the mixture of peat, sand and seeds on top of the soil, then sprinkle some good potting soil over this. The rule of thumb for planting depth of seeds is to plant them twice the length of the seed, so if the Japanese maple seeds are 1/8" long, they should be planted no more than a quarter inch deep. If planted too deeply, they may not grow.

Once the seeds are planted they should be watered thoroughly, but the soil surface should be allowed to dry before the seeds are watered again. The warmth of the sun and the soil is crucial to the germination process, so the soil needs to be dry and warm up a bit before between watering. However, the soil should not be allowed to become too dry as this will stop the growing process.

Japanese maple trees prefer to grow in at least some shade, so once the seedlings have begun to sprout you will need to provide them with some shade. Dappled shade for the first few months or even a full year of growth will prevent the tender young leaves from scorching.

Once the seedlings have some size to them, after a full year or even two, they can be dug up while dormant and transplanted to their permanent location.

Michael J. McGroarty is the author of this article. Visit his most interesting website, and sign up for his excellent gardening newsletter. For more information about growing Japanese maple trees, including photos and a video of Mikeís Japanese maple collection, go to:

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