We love all Japanese maples, but the varieties with unusual features hold a special place in our hearts. A big benefit of Japanese maples in general is their beautiful color display throughout the seasons, but there is a special group with incredible colored and unique bark that especially shines in winter! Read on to learn all about these colored twig and unique bark varieties, including how to give them the best care and which variety might be the perfect fit for your garden.
Why are they so special?
Most of the Japanese maple varieties with unique bark have brightly-colored or even variegated bark, but others have interesting textures like alligator skin or cork. These are highly desirable in landscapes because not only do they provide beautifully contrasting colors during the growing season, they also have a stunning color display in winter with their brilliant twigs. They are great for planting in highly visible locations so you can enjoy them throughout the year.
Caring for maples with unique bark
Japanese maples with colorful and unique bark require care very similar to the care you would give any maple. The one exception is winter care, as the light-colored bark can be more sensitive to winter damage, particularly on the tips of the twigs. Most of these maples are hardy to USDA Zone 6, but if you are in Zone 6 or 7 it is wise to plant them in a spot where they will have some protection from cold winter winds. You can even grow them in decorative containers and move the containers inside during particularly cold periods. If growing in the ground, a thick layer of mulch over the root zone may help insulate the roots and prevent damage.
If you do get some darkened tips by the end of the winter, you can easily prune these off once the weather warms in the spring. This is also a good time to remove any dead, diseased, or crossing branches. Be sure to sanitize your clippers before and after pruning each maple tree in your garden. Most of these types of maples can grow in full sun to partial shade. A regular watering schedule is beneficial, and so is applying a slow-release fertilizer in the spring.
Top 10 Japanese maples with colorful bark
The following maple varieties are our top picks for incredibly vibrant bark and twigs:
Acer palmatum ‘Sango kaku’, the original Coral Bark Maple. This variety is the industry standard for maples with colorful bark. The name translates to “Coral Tower”, pointing to its appearance in winter that resembles a bright coral reef. It has been in nursery production since around 1920 and is still incredibly popular today. Its growth starts in a vase shape, and it gradually widens over time. A 10-year-old Sango kaku can be expected to reach about 7’ tall by 4’ wide. The foliage is yellow/orange in spring and fall and a vibrant green in summer. The nearly fluorescent branches are the real showstopper in winter. It grows well in full sun to partial shade. It is hardy to USDA Zone 5 but benefits from protection from cold winter winds.
Acer palmatum ‘Little Sango’ is, as the name implies, a dwarf version of the famous Sango kaku. It is perfect for small gardens that may not have room for the full size version of the coral bark maple, and it boasts all the same colorful qualities. It is very rare, so be sure to snatch one up if you happen to catch them listed on our site! A 10-year-old Little Sango is very dense and about 4’ tall by 3’ wide. It is hardy in Zones 5-9 but benefits from some winter protection in colder regions. Plant in full sun to partial shade.
Acer palmatum ‘Beni kawa’ is very similar to Sango kaku with several differences, many would say improvements. While it has very similar foliage and branch colors and growth habit, it tends to grow a bit slower which makes it more suitable for small spaces. It also has a reputation for being more cold hardy than Sango kaku. The bark is a red-coral color that stays bright even on older branches. 10 year size is 6’ tall by 3’ wide, and it is hardy to USDA Zone 5. Beni kawa grows well in full sun to partial shade.
Acer palmatum ‘Aka kawa hime’ is another dwarf version of Sango kaku. The twigs intensify from coral to bright red in the winter, making a big impact for a small tree! The leaves emerge green in spring and turn a rich gold in fall, providing beautiful contrast with the color of the twigs. At 10 years, you could expect up to 6’ in height and 3’ in width. Aka kawa hime is hardy to USDA Zone 5. It grows well in full sun to partial shade.
Acer circinatum ‘Pacific Fire’ is actually not a Japanese maple, but rather a vine maple that is native to Western North America. This variety has incredible year-round coloration, with red stems and light green leaves in spring, bright green leaves and yellow-green stems in summer, gold leaves and red stems in fall, and bright red stems through the winter months. The stem color is at its most vibrant from late summer through early spring. Pacific Fire prefers partial shade but can tolerate full sun as well. Size at 10 years old can be up to 10’ tall and 4’ wide. It is hardy to USDA Zone 5.
Acer palmatum ‘Cherries Jubilee’ is a brand new, Conifer Kingdom exclusive variety, available in very limited quantities! We are excited so excited about this seedling for its incredible cherry red stems on display through the winter. Keep watching for increasing numbers and sizes becoming available in the next few years…
Acer palmatum ‘Bihou’ has extremely unique coloring throughout the year. In spring, the pale chartreuse leaves emerge with a pink blush, gradually deepening to a fresh green in summer, then to bright gold in fall. The branches display a bright apricot hue throughout the year, with the most brilliant colors on display from late summer to early spring. Bihou can be grown in full sun to partial shade and needs protection from winter winds and harsh sun. It is quite slow growing, reaching only 7’ tall by 3’ wide at 10 years old. It is hardy to USDA Zone 6.
Acer palmatum ‘Aizuma nishiki’ is a gorgeous variegated maple variety with consistent full-leaf variegation in shades of green, pink, and white, and bright pink new growth. The real surprise is revealed in winter, when the green stems display pink and scarlet stripes throughout! It is a slow-growing variety, reaching around 5’ tall by 2.5’ wide at 10 years old. It grows well in full sun to partial shade, and is hardy to USDA Zone 5.
Acer palmatum Radiant™ has breathtaking dappled variegation in tones of pink, white, and green. The pattern almost resembles impressionist brushstrokes. There are also pink stripes displayed on the bark. Radiant grows best in part shade or full shade, as full sun exposure can result in some burning of the delicate leaves. It can reach a size of about 8’ tall by 5’ wide at 10 years old. It is hardy to USDA Zone 6 and benefits from protection from cold winter winds.
Acer x conspicuum ‘Phoenix’ is known as a “snakebark maple” for its incredible winter bark that is bright red with crisp white stripes running up and down. The leaves in summer are large and bright green for a wonderfully lush texture in the garden. Phoenix grows well in full sun to partial shade and is cold hardy to USDA Zone 5. It has better hardiness than many Japanese maples. At 10 years old, you can expect 8’ in height and 3 in width.
Special Mention: Rough Bark Maple
Acer palmatum ‘Ara kawa’ has fascinating rough, corky bark that resembles gray elephant’s skin. The leaves are green and have a delicate texture, and turn bright red in the fall. To best highlight the unique bark, plant as a specimen in the garden and trim the limbs up over time to reveal the truck as much as possible, or grow in a container for up-close viewing. This variety makes an especially incredible bonsai, with the corky bark making it look old and wizened, even at a young age. It can reach about 9’ tall by 5’ wide at 10 years old, and is hardy USDA Zone 6.