Japanese maple from seed

By Michael J. McGroarty
Perry, Ohio Copyright 2011

Growing Japanese Maple trees from seed is a lot easier than most people think. However, it is important to understand that there are more than 250 different cultivars of the Japanese Maple tree, and my purpose through this website is to introduce you to as many of these different cultivars as I can. Or more appropriately, as we can, because the purpose of this web site is to develop a community of Japanese Maple Lovers and collectors.

Japanese Maples come in all kinds of different sizes, different shapes, and have a variety of different growing characteristics. They also have as many different variations of leaf size and shape as you can imagine. And that’s why the Japanese Maple is by far, one of the most versatile plants you can add to your landscape. The different varieties are so unique that you can easily use several of them in a residential or commercial landscape without the slightest hint of redundancy.

However, all of this tends to complicate the process of propagating Japanese Maples because very few of these numerous cultivars will come true to the parent plant when grown from seed. So . . . you might ask, how do I go about propagating a Japanese Maple?

There are a number of methods which include growing them from seed, grafting a piece of the desired variety onto a Japanese Maple seedling, and budding. Budding is really just another form of grafting, except instead of using a small cutting from the desired parent plant, you work with a single bud from the desired plant. Some Japanese Maples are also grown via tissue culture which involves a laboratory and test tube like conditions.

You and I at home? Let’s stick to the basics of growing from seed, grafting and budding. In order to graft or bud, you must first have a Japanese Maple seedling that you can use as the rootstock. So for the remainder of this article we’ll discuss growing from seed.

The majority of the Japanese Maples you’ll encounter in your daily travels are from the Acer palmatum family, so that’s what we’ll discuss in this article. First allow me to explain exactly what Acer palmatum means in terms that you and I can understand. All plants have a common name and a Latin name. The Latin name is really the most dependable way to identify a plant because many plants end up with numerous common names, depending upon who you are talking to. But there should always be just one Latin name.

So let’s break down the Latin name Acer palmatum. Acer is the generic name, or the genus, and Acer is used to identify any maple tree. Palmatum is the species name and in this case means that the maple tree being identified is from the Japanese Maple family. Acer palmatum means Japanese Maple. Next we add the variety to the Latin name. As in; Acer palmatum dissectum. Any Japanese Maple that has a variety of dissectum in it’s name is a mounded, low growing tree with leaves that look like they’ve been dissected. Commonly called ‘cut leaf’ or ‘lace leaf’. Acer palmatum dissectum. To the end of that we’ll add the cultivar name, as in Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’.

There are a lot of Acers, a lot of Acer palmatums, and a lot of Acer palmatum dissectums. But there is only one Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Crimson Queen’. That describes a very specific kind of Japanese Maple and that particular variety, as with all specific varieties, can only be reproduced through a means of asexual reproduction.

Sexual reproduction is what happens naturally. A seed falls to the ground, germinates and a Japanese Maple seedling emerges. Of course it’s not quite that simple, and I’ll explain how to make the process more predictable. Asexual reproduction is any form of propagation that is not natural. Rooting cuttings, budding, grafting or reproducing plants via tissue culture are all forms of asexual reproduction.

So . . . with all of that explained, let’s discuss growing Japanese Maples from seed and hopefully through my long winded explanation you now understand that when growing just about any plant from seed, the results are not always predictable. Much like human reproduction via sexual means, we all look similar, yet each and every one of us is different.

With plants there are advantages and disadvantages to those mixed results. When growing from seed you never really know for sure what you are going to get. But in the case of Japanese Maples, you at least know that if you sow seeds of Acer palmatum you’ll get Acer palmatum seedlings. They may not have that beautiful deep red color, but it’s almost certain that your seedlings, even if the leaves are as green as grass, they’ll make good quality root stock trees for grafting or budding. They will be compatible with any cultivar of Acer palmatum that you’d like to graft or bud onto them.

We also know that if you collect your Japanese Maple seeds from a tree with deep red leaves, there’s a really strong chance that many of your seedlings will have leaves that are deep red in color. They won’t all have deep red color, some of them will be green and some will show different shades of red. If you collect your seeds from a Japanese Maple that has green leaves, chances are most, if not all of your seedlings will have green leaves.

Now this is important because a lot of people get confused with this. ‘Bloodgood’ is a named Japanese Maple cultivar. It is so named because it has deep red leaves that hold their color all summer long. At some point in time all ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese Maples will put out a crop of seeds. You can collect those seeds and grow them with the instructions I will give you below. But no matter what, no matter how red the leaves on your seedlings are, they are not, and cannot be called ‘Bloodgood’ because they will have been produced via sexual reproduction and are not identical clones of the parent plant.

Some growers and or vendors twist this a little by calling them ‘Bloodgood’ seedlings, but I don’t like and don’t agree with this practice at all. They are not ‘Bloodgood’ and that name should not be used when describing them. What they really are is Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpureum’ which is a Japanese Maple seedling with red leaves. So, when growing Japanese Maples from seed you’ll get one of two different plants. Acer palmatum, or Acer palmatum ‘Atropurpurpeum’. The first will have green leaves, the second will have red leaves.

That’s a lot of words, but it is intended to give you a good foundational knowledge of Japanese Maple propagation. Now let’s get to the basics of growing them from seed.

Japanese Maple trees flower in the spring. Of course the flowers don’t look anything like a flower from a distance, but viewed closely they very much resemble a tiny but beautiful bloom. For the most part they are inconspicuous and usually go unnoticed. But as with all plants you first need a bloom, then some sort of fruit, then within the fruit you find the seeds. On any kind of maple tree, the seeds are trapped in a winged seed pod that most of us as kids called “helicopters” because the pods spin like the blades of a helicopter as they fall from the tree.

After the tree flowers in the spring the seed pods begin to form. You must leave them on the tree all summer, into the fall to allow them to mature. If you collect the seeds too soon the embryo inside of the seeds will not be completely mature and the seeds will not be viable. The rule of thumb is to leave the seed pods on the trees until they start to turn brown and can be removed from the tree fairly easily with little resistance. Here in northern Ohio, zone 5 this usually happens around mid to late October. If you wait too long you’ll lose out because once the seeds start falling it happens quickly. If you find a bunch of seeds on the ground by all means pick them up, they are still perfectly fine and viable.

Japanese maple seeds with the wing still attached.

Once you’ve collected your seeds the goal is to sow them and get them to germinate. But this is a little tricky. Not at all difficult, but you do have to trick the seeds with a process that is called stratification. Japanese Maple seeds have a really hard outer coating that protects the embryo. In order for the seeds to germinate you have to take some steps to soften that outer coating, so water and oxygen can find it’s way inside of the seed.

In nature the natural process is not very efficient and it can often take up to two years, maybe longer, before the seeds actually germinate. That poses a problem because the timing might be way off, and the little tiny seedling might start emerging right before winter and have no chance at all of survival. By following one of the three different methods that I am going give you here, you will actually control when the seed germinates, thus giving you a much higher percentage of success.

Method #1 is to sow the seeds immediately after you collect them. This is a pretty simple process and it can work really well. Of course with this method you are at the mercy of Mother Nature, but it’s still quite predictable. Not sure? Do some of your seeds both ways and see for yourself which one you like the best.

Where do you get Japanese Maple seeds? You can buy them if you want. There is a lot of debate about the quality of purchased Japanese Maple seeds, and the quality can and will vary from vendor to vendor. There are all kinds of vendors online that sell seeds. My goal here at Japanese Maple Lovers is to put together a list of seed suppliers you can buy from if can’t find any seed locally. What’s really important is to get fresh seed, and if you want your seedlings to have red leaves you have to know the details of the tree from which the seed is collected. That’s why finding your own local source is the best option.

With that said, once you set your mind on growing Japanese Maples from seed, you will start seeing all kinds of large Japanese Maples in your hometown. You might see these trees in local parks, cemeteries and in peoples yards. You must ask permission to collect seeds from any tree that you do not own, but usually most people are happy to allow you to collect seeds from their tree. However, since you’ll probably want to go back year after year, you should gift them with a few of your seedlings. Maybe even gift them with a small Japanese Maple that you’ve purchased, and by all means after you collect the seeds send them a thank you card and possibly a gift card for a local restaurant. If you do this, you are likely to have a perpetual supply of Japanese Maple seeds for a long time to come.

Method #1

Method number one is good for colder zones like zones 4, 5, 6 and probably zone 7. Not sure what cold hardiness zone you’re in? Just do a Google search for “cold hardiness zone map”.

1. Immediately after you collect your seeds dump them out on a work table. One by one pick the seeds up and break the wing off. Discard the wing and keep the part that contains the seed. How do you know for sure which part is which? The wing looks very much like the wing of a large insect. It has veins and it’s quite brittle. The part that contains the seed obviously has a bulge and is not at all fragile. Don’t be overly concerned about whether or not you broke off enough wing. What’s really important is that you keep the part that contains the seed. If there’s still a little wing attached that’s not a problem.

Japanese Maple seeds with the wing removed.

2. Put the seeds in a container that will hold hot water. Run the water from your faucet until it’s quite warm, but not so hot that you can’t put your hand under it. But close to that hot. Pour the warm to hot water over the seeds and just let them soak in the water for 24 hours. At first the seeds will float, but eventually they’ll almost all sink to the bottom. The ones that never sink are probably not viable, but it won’t hurt to sow them with the rest. Maybe they just didn’t get wet enough to sink.

3. Once the seeds have soaked in the water for 24 hours pour off the water and spread the seeds out on a paper towel. You can allow them to dry overnight to make them easier to work with. Next fill a flat with a good seed starting mix that drains well. I suggest mixing some additional Perlite into the mix to make sure it will drain well.

If you don’t have a flat just go to the dollar store and buy a plastic dish pan, and drill many 1/2″ holes in the bottom so any water that drains to the bottom can escape from the dish pan. The holes you drill should be no farther apart than one inch.

4. Sow the seeds on top of the seed starting mix and press them down lightly so they are embedded in the growing medium. Then lightly sprinkle a covering of seed starting mix over top of the seeds. The light covering of mix should be no more than 1/4″ deep. 3/16″ deep would be ideal.

5. Next cut a piece of hardware cloth (heavy screen) so it fits tightly inside the dish pan. The purpose of the hardware cloth is to keep mice, chipmunks or other critters from digging in the dish pan and eating your seeds. The openings in the hardware cloth can be anywhere from 1/4″ to 1/2″. Consider using light wire, twist ties, or zip ties to fasten the hardware cloth to the top of the dish pan so the critters can’t pull it up to get to the seeds. The hardware cloth does not have to be suspended above the soil in the dish pan, because come spring you will remove the hardware cloth long before your seeds have a chance to germinate. So just lay the hardware cloth on the growing medium. The fasteners are only to keep the hardware cloth from being blown out or removed.

6. Now it’s time to set the dish pan and Japanese Maple seeds outside in the elements. Weren’t expecting that were you? It’s important to understand that Japanese Maple seeds require a lengthy treatment of cold before they will germinate. It’s part of the natural process. So what we are doing here in method #1 is trying to closely mimic the natural process, but we are better controlling some of the environmental conditions so the results are more predictable.

When deciding where to place your dish pan of seeds in your yard, select a place that is out of the wind and hopefully in a spot where dogs, skunks or raccoons won’t disturb it or tip it over. The goal is not to keep it from freezing. It can and will freeze, and that’s fine. It might stay frozen all winter. That’s not a problem. Snow cover is also fine. Snow is actually an excellent insulator and would be really good for your seeds. Freezing won’t hurt them, but it does slow down the stratification process. So, if they were naturally covered with snow for long periods of time during the winter chances are the growing medium would not freeze, or would not stay frozen. That would be perfect. Just set the flat or dish pan out in your selected location and forget about it.

7. As spring starts to arrive check on your container to make sure nothing is sprouting yet. As soon as the seeds start to sprout you need to remove the hardware cloth, but you don’t want to remove it too soon. In the early spring, just about the time the leaves start to come out, remove the hardware cloth from your growing container. At this time make sure the container is in a shaded location. About 40% to 50% filtered sunlight would be ideal. Water the growing medium as necessary, but don’t keep it soaking wet. It’s important the growing medium be allowed to dry and warm up before you water again. The seeds need some water, but should not be soaking wet. But more importantly the seeds need to be warm come spring so they start germinating. That’s why you should water only when needed so the growing medium stays warm.

8. You’ve done all you can. Now it’s up to Mother Nature. Be patient. Growing Japanese Maples from seed is a slow but highly rewarding process. In two to three weeks if the weather is warm, you should see seedlings start to pop up. The first set of leaves they produce are called cotyledons. The cotyledons will not look at all like Japanese Maple leaves. Cotyledons are actually part of the embryo from within the seeds and help to nourish the little seedling until the true leaves appear and take over. Once the true leaves appear the cotyledons wither and disappear. At that point photosynthesis begins and your little seedlings are well on their way to becoming beautiful little trees, each with their own unique characteristics.

9. At some point your Japanese Maple seedlings will have to be transplanted so they have more room to grow and develop. You can do that as soon as they germinate by simply picking them out of the flat with tweezers and re-planting them in a flat where they’ll have more room, or you can transplant them into a cell pack. Cell packs are the flimsy, lightweight trays that annual flowers are grown in. Cell packs are nice because you can later remove the seedlings from the cell pack in nice little root balls. Cell packs are tapered so plants can be easily removed without disturbing the roots.

Or you can just leave the seedlings in the flat you started with, then at the end of the growing season when they are dormant remove and separate them. Even if they are really close together that’s usually not a problem for the first growing season. Throughout the first growing season make sure your seedlings only get about 50% sunlight, since direct sun will burn their leaves. After the first season I plant mine out in direct sun here in zone 5. They’d probably benefit from at least some sun and if you are in a warmer zone you should consider some shade. The older they get the more sun tolerant they are, but Japanese Maples in general take a bit of beating in the direct sun. Usually the damage isn’t serious, just some browning around the edges. All of the Japanese Maples in my yard and even the ones in the nursery are in full sun. Only the young ones get a little protection with me.

Method # 2

1. In this method you will collect the seeds in fall just as they start to turn brown. Collect the seeds simply by pulling them from the tree. They should come off the tree easily. Place the seeds in a paper bag and store them in a cool dry place. A basement or garage is fine. You are not going to do anything with those seeds for a few months, they’ll be fine in the paper bag as long as they are dry.

2. Establish the “target date” that you can safely plant your seedlings outside. Here in northern Ohio, zone 5 we are usually safe from frost after May 15th, so that is my target date. So I will count backwards from May 15th, counting back 100 days. That takes me back to February 5th. On February 5th I will retrieve my seeds from the paper bag, break off the wing as describe above and soak them in warm to hot water for 24 hours as described in method #1.

3. After soaking in water for 24 hours you need to mix the seeds with a combination of sand and peat moss, or a seed starting mix that contains some extra perlite. You will also need a large zip-lock type freezer bag, but of course that depends on how many seeds you have. Fill the plastic bag about 1/2 to 3/4 full with the growing medium to make sure have the right amount. Dump the growing medium out of the bag into a bowl. Pour the seeds into the bowl on top of the growing medium and mix them together with your hands. Next sprinkle some water on the mix and mix it some more. You want the growing medium damp, but not soaking wet. After mixing the seeds and the growing medium thoroughly pour the combination back into the zip bag.

4. Press down on the bag to force most of the air out, then poke about three holes near the top of the bag for just a little ventilation. Place the bag in your refrigerator. Don’t put it way to the back of the refrigerator because it’s usually colder back there and the medium might freeze. Although freezing won’t hurt the seeds, it will slow down the stratification process.

The Japanese Maple seeds need a 90 day cold treatment to initiate the germination process. Ideally they should between 38 degrees F. and 50 degrees F. In other words, about the same temperature as the main area of your refrigerator where you keep your milk. From time to time check on your seeds and make sure you do not have a mold problem. Some people add a little fungicide to the mix from the beginning to prevent mold, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Should some mold develop just add some fungicide at that time. Brand doesn’t matter, just a general fungicide from the garden store. Use only a small amount of fungicide.

5. After 90 days in the refrigerator remove the bag and inspect it for germinating seeds. If you see little sprouts pick those seeds out of the bag and plant them in a flat of seed starting medium. Just poke a little hole in the soil, press the seed into the hole and leave the sprout sticking out. If there are no sprouting seeds, or few sprouting seeds just leave the bag out on the counter at room temperature and within a week you should see more and more seeds sprouting in the bag. Remove the sprouted seeds and leave the bag at room temperature until no more seeds seem to be sprouting.

Do not discard the mix in the bag because there are probably seeds in there that are going to take longer to sprout, so just pour the mix into a flat and place it outside where it’s warm. Keep the flat watered but not soaking wet.

6. The sprouted seedlings that you planted in the flat are going to need some sunlight as they grow so you’ll either have to give them some artificial light for a few weeks or move them outside into a shaded area. They need a little sunlight, but direct sun will burn them up. From there just care for them as you would any seedling.

Method # 3

1. This method is very much like method number two, but with this method you soak the seeds for 24 hours. Change the water, using more warm water, soak them for another 24 hours, change the water and soak them for another 24 hours. So that’s a total of 72 hours of soaking.

2. After soaking spread the seeds out on a brown paper towel, you know, the kind that you find it restrooms at public buildings. The brown towels are just about the right consistency, but any paper towel will work. I’d say the cheaper brands would be better for this purpose. Spread the seeds out in a row on the towel then fold the towel over top of the seeds a couple of times. Dampen the paper towel and place it in a plastic bag and place the bag in the refrigerator for 90 days as described above. After 90 days start checking on the seeds just as described above.

3. The seeds will sprout inside of the paper towel and you can pick them off the towel, or cut the towel around the seed. If some of the towel is stuck to the seed that’s fine, just plant the seed with a little towel stuck to it. Some people have told me they use toilet paper because it falls apart and the sprouted seeds are easier to harvest.

So, there you have three different methods. They all work. Pick one or try two, or all three. But by all means do at least one, don’t allow indecision to hold you back.

Have fun growing Japanese Maples from seed!

You never know what you are going to get, maybe the next really, really interesting variety.

If you have enjoyed and found this article useful I hope you will spread the word about JapaneseMapleLovers.com. We are a community of people who love and collect Japanese Maples.

Thank you for the question Darrell!

Propagating maple (Acer spp.) from seed is not complicated, although variation in dormancy requirements exists between spring/early summer-seeding soft maples (red maple and silver maple) and late summer/early fall-seeding hard maples (sugar maple and black maple). Therefore, to answer your question, I did a little research on the three most common native Illinois maples:

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum): Sugar maple seed matures in late summer or early fall; collect immediately upon ripening. Stratification required – sow seed at 0.25-1.00 inches in moist growing medium such as vermiculite, peat moss, or sand for a period of 40-90 days at 33-39 degrees Fahrenheit (place in refrigerator); upon development of first germinants, move all seed to warmer environment to increase germination rate. Place germinants in larger planting media when necessary.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum): Please note that red maple seed may or may not germinate without stratification (this variability in stratification is due to genetic differences in red maple populations). Red maple seed matures in spring or early summer; collect immediately upon ripening. If stratification is required; sow seed at 0.25-1.00 inches in moist growing medium such as vermiculite, peat moss, or sand for a period of 60-90 days at 33-39 degrees Fahrenheit (place in refrigerator); upon development of first germinants, move all seed to warmer environment to increase germination rate. Place germinants in larger planting media when necessary.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum): Silver maple seed matures in spring or early summer; collect immediately upon ripening. No stratification period required; sow seed at 0.25-1.00 inches in moist growing medium such as vermiculite, peat moss, or sand. Place germinants in larger planting media when necessary.

Stratification – is the process of pretreating seeds to simulate natural conditions that a seed must endure before germination. Many seed species have what is called an embryonic dormancy and generally speaking will not sprout until this dormancy is broken (Wikipedia).

ACER palmatum atropurpureum

Although seed can be sown most of the year in Australia seed is generally best sown in spring or autumn, avoid the coldest and hottest months of the year. The optimum germination temperature for germination is around 18-22°C

Cold stratification is recommended.
Cold treatment may not be critical for germination to occur in colder regions but should give increased germination rates.

This can be replicated by cold stratification in the refrigerator for 6-8 weeks. Alternatively over wintering in the garden in cold climates will assist germination.

  1. Soak in water overnight.
  2. Sow seed the depth of the seed width.
  3. Water with fine mist spray to avoid disturbance of the seed.
  4. Ensure the mix is moist but not water logged.
  5. Place the container in plastic bag.
  6. Place the bagged container in the refrigerator for 6-8 weeks.
  7. Germination generally occurs in 14-28 days when moved to warmer temperatures after the period of cold treatment.

General note: Seeds of many natives are dormant and require specific conditions or pre-treatment for germination.
Do not be too hasty to discard seed that does not germinate, seeds will often lay dormant until the conditions are similar to their natural requirements for germination to occur. Containers put to one side will often surprise long after they were discarded.

Japanese Maple Seed Propagation: Tips On Planting Japanese Maple Seeds

Japanese maples have a well-deserved place in the hearts of many gardeners. With beautiful summer and fall foliage, cold hardy roots, and often a compact, manageable shape, they are the ideal specimen tree. They are often bought as saplings, but it’s also possible to grow them yourself from seed. Keep reading to learn more about how to germinate Japanese maple seed.

Growing Japanese Maples from Seed

Can you grow Japanese maples from seed? Yes, you can. But can you grow any variety of Japanese maple from seed? That’s a very different question. Most of the stunning Japanese maple varieties that you can buy in the nursery are actually grafted, meaning the seeds they produce won’t grow into the same tree.

Much like planting an apple seed from an apple will likely result in a crabapple tree, planting a seed from a Japanese maple will probably result in a generic Japanese maple tree. It will still be a Japanese maple, and it may

still have red summer foliage, but chances are it won’t be quite as remarkable as its parent.

So is growing Japanese maples from seed a lost cause? Not at all! Japanese maples are great trees, and they reliably turn beautiful bright colors in the fall. And since you never know quite what you’re going to get, you might stumble across a really beautiful specimen.

How to Germinate Japanese Maple Seed

Japanese maple seeds are ripe in the fall. This is the time to collect them – when they’re brown and dry and falling from the trees. You can plant both seeds that have fallen to the ground and seeds you’ve picked from the tree.

When planting Japanese maple seeds, it’s important to pretreat them before sowing them in the ground. If you plan on planting your seeds outdoors in the spring, place them in a paper bag and store them in a cool, dark place through the winter.

If you plan on starting them indoors in a pot, you can skip the winter storage and begin treating the seeds right away. First, break off the wings of the seeds. Next, fill a container with water that’s very warm but not too hot to put your hand in it, and soak your seeds for 24 hours.

Then mix the seeds in a small amount of potting soil and put it all in a sealable plastic bag. Poke a couple holes in the bag for ventilation, and put it in your refrigerator for 90 days to stratify. Once the 90 days are up, you can plant the seeds in a container or directly in the ground.

If you live somewhere with cold winters, you can skip the fridge and simply sow your seeds outdoors after they soak. The cold of winter will stratify the seeds just as well.

Japanese Red Maple Trees are actually quite easy to grow from seed. In this article, I will give you step by step instructions for doing so.

A Step by Step Guide to Growing Japanese Maples from Seed.

But first, we need to chat about what kind of Japanese maple can and cannot be grown from seed.

Crimson Queen Laceleaf Japanese Red Maple.

Japanese maples grown from seed are not an exact clone of the parent plant.

It’s important to understand that not all, in fact, many Japanese maples are not grown from seed. Most of the rare, or interesting varieties of Japanese maples are actually grafted on to a Japanese maple seedling, which of course is grown from seed.

The Japanese maple in the above photos is Waterfall, which is in the dissectum family of Japanese maples. Dissectum meaning split-leaf or cut leaf. The leaves are much smaller than a regular, or generic Japanese maple and they have very interesting jagged edges. A Japanese maple like this cannot be grown from seed. It has to be budded or grafted to a seedling.

We need to have the “Sex” talk.

Growing a plant from seed is considered sexual reproduction. When a plant is grown from a cutting, a graft or a bud that is considered asexual reproduction because it that is not the way that nature intended for plants to be reproduced. Asexual reproduction produces an exact clone of the parent plant.

Without “asexual reproduction” most of the beautiful and amazing plants that we have come to love would never be known to us because there would only one of them. Asexual reproduction is how nurserymen or nursery women create hundreds and hundreds of identical plants so homeowners across the land can enjoy them.

Free Today:

The million-dollar question.

Mike, if a beautiful tree like the Waterfall Japanese maple can not be grown from seed, and that’s not how nature does things, where did the very first one come from?

Chance seedlings.

Great question. Every once in awhile, and I do mean every once in a while, Mother Nature gives us a gift. A chance seedling that is absolutely beautiful and looks and acts nothing like the parent plant. These chance seedlings are probably one in a million, maybe one in a hundred thousand, but for sure their arrival is completely unpredictable.

This is not a Japanese maple, but . . .

This beautiful tree, the Lavender Twist Weeping Redbud tree is the direct result of a chance seedling being discovered by a very astute gardener.

And . . . when chance seedlings do appear, a very astute gardener needs to be nearby to actually take notice and realize that something really special has happened. Honestly, when an awesome chance seedling is discovered, it is nothing short of a miracle and all of us who love and appreciate plants are better because of it.

A perfect example of that is the Lavender Twist Weeping Redbud tree. Not a Japanese maple, but a truly amazing plant that was a “chance seedling”, discovered by a very astute gardener and developed and brought to market by a very talented nurseryman. If you care to read that story you can do so here.

Growing Japanese maples from seed is exciting.

Truth be told, if you grow Japanese maples from seed, you are probably going to end up with some rather generic seedlings. Some with red leaves, some with green leaves, what most would consider “generic Japanese maples”. But there is always that chance that one of your seedlings could the most awesome Japanese maple ever!

There are more than 1,000 Japanese maple varieties in the world today, so there are plenty of chances that your seedling could be the next big variety to come to market. So let’s get started!

Step 1. Collect some Japanese maple seeds.

There a few things about collecting Japanese maple seeds that we think we know, but there is always that complete unpredictability that makes this fun. If you collect Japanese maple seeds from a Japanese maple that has green leaves, chances are your seedlings will have green leaves. Maybe not all of them, but of them are likely to have green leaves.

If you collect Japanese maple seeds from a tree with really deep red color, chances are, many of the seedlings that you grow will have good red color and are likely to hold that color pretty well throughout the growing season. There are a number of Japanese maples that are notorious for deep red color. They are named varieties. Bloodgood is one of the most popular, another is Oshi Beni and another is Emporer I.

All awesome plants. Seeds from those trees are likely to produce seedlings with nice red color. But you can’t call them Bloodgood, Oshi Beni or Emporer I. They are nothing more than red seedlings with the botanical name of Acer palmatum atropurpureum.

Acer is the botanical name for a maple tree, palmatum means Japanese maple and atropurpureum means red leaves. A Japanese maple seedling with green leave would be Acer palmatum.

Japanese maple seeds are produced in the spring and the summer and they need to hang on the tree into the fall so they have a chance to mature. If you harvest seeds before they are ready, they are not going to grow because the embryo will not be fully developed.

The best time to collect Japanese maples seeds is October here in northern, Ohio zone 5 and I would say that most zones where Japanese maples grow would be the same. As the seeds ripen they begin to turn brown and fall from the tree. You should start collecting them before they fall from the tree, but collecting them off the ground is not a problem, the seeds will still be very viable.

People often ask, how do I know whether or not a tree is a Japanese maple or not. And I’m not sure how to answer that, at least in print, but I assure you, once to start looking around you’ll be able to pick out a Japanese maple from a hundred feet away. Basically, this is what a Japanese maple leaf looks like. Or course there all different kinds of Japanese maples, but this is the most common.

A Japanese red maple leaf.

Step 2. Check the seeds for viability.

After you collect the seeds you can spread them out on a table and randomly pick a few seeds from the batch. Place those seeds one at a time on a cutting board and cut through the seed with a sharp knife. As you do this notice what the consistency of the seed is like. The seed should firm, or hard. Not soft and mushy.

Inspect the inside of the seed. The inside of the seed should green or cream in color. The tissue should look firm and healthy with good color. If the seeds are hollow inside or the embryo is brown or brown and mushy, that seed is no good. It’s a good idea to know that your seeds are viable so you don’t waste your time trying to grow them.

If you suspect that you have bad seed, see if you can collect more from a different tree. There are likely all kinds of Japanese maple trees in your town that you may have never noticed. Banks, doctors office, city hall, parks, cemetery’s, etc. And in peoples yards. Always ask permission, most people are happy to let you pick a few seeds.

Buying Japanese maple seeds.

Japanese maple seeds.

You can buy Japanese maple seeds, but it’s always best to buy from a known and trusted source. I hate to say it, but some who sell seeds are only interested in getting your money and are not concerned about whether they sell you good seed or not.

I often see ads for a seed that make claims that quite simply, are just not true! And that’s the Beauty of Our Members Area. We have members who sell Japanese maple seeds in the Buy/Sell Area and they are very good about offering quality seed for sale at wholesale prices.

They also sell Japanese maple seedlings and rare and unusual varieties of Japanese maples as well. It’s really quite an amazing place. I have purchased thousands and thousands of dollars worth of rare Japanese maple from my own customers in the Buy/Sell Area of the Backyard Growers Business Center.

Of course, everything is seasonal. Japanese maple seeds are usually available in the fall, usually mid-October until they are sold out. Japanese maple seedlings and rare Japanese maples are often advertised in the late winter, but just recently I watch a member sell a ton of rare Japanese maple varieties in September. So you never know for sure, but there are always interesting plants for sale in the Buy/Sell Area and always at wholesale prices.

Step 3. Soaking Japanese maple seeds in hot water.

First let’s talk about sowing Japanese maple seeds outside, in the fall. Japanese maple seeds have a very hard outer coating and the seeds cannot, will not germinate until that outer coating is softened up.

In nature, this is a very slow process and can take up to two years before the outer coating is softened up enough for the seeds to germinate. And of course, that means that germination could occur at any time during the growing season which is really not good. It’s best to have those seedlings germinate in the spring so that by the time summer and fall roll around they are strong enough to withstand the harsh summer heat and sun, and then the freezing weather in the fall and winter.

In other words, we can control when the seeds germinate by soaking them and softening the outer coating of the seed to get the germination process started.

Soaking Japanese red maple seeds in hot water.

This step is easy. Simply run hot water from the tap and fill a cup. Not quite boiling water, but hot water. Fill a cup with water, drop in your seeds and as the water cools down simply let them soak.

Remove, break off the wing before you soak the seeds.

The only part of the seed that you need is the part that is opposite the wing. Simply snap off the wing and keep the little round ball part. The actual seed is inside of that little round ball.

Soaking Japanese red maple seeds in hot water.

When you first place the seeds in the water they will float. As they soak the seeds will get heavier and drop to the bottom of the cup. Seeds that never sink are probably not viable and can be disposed of.

Keep in mind that propagating any kind of a plant is really a numbers game. The more you do, the better your chances of success. I took this photo just so I could do this article. If I were serious about growing these seeds for myself I would collect and sow hundreds if not thousands of seeds.

Let them soak for 24 hours. If you want to repeat this process and soak them for another 24 hours I’m sure that would be fine and it will to help soften the outer coating of the seeds. Just pour off the water and add more hot water and soak for an additional 24 hours.

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Step 4. Sowing the Japanese maple seeds outside in the cold!

This too is a very simple process. You can sow them in Flat or a Tray or you can do as I often do and put them in a large, black plastic nursery container.

Sowing Japanese maple seeds in a black nursery container.

I like using the black nursery containers because the sun heats up the container and actually keeps the soil from getting too wet and soggy and of course plants love to be warm. When they are warm and happy they grow and they make roots. Warm soil is like magic.

Notice that I only put about 4 inches of Potting Soil in the container. That allows the sun to hit the inside of the plastic container as well as the outside of the container keeping the seeds nice and warm.

Just place this container outside, in an area out of the wind, but in a place where the sun can shine on the container. Don’t worry about the snow, the cold, the freezing temperatures. Japanese maple seeds actually need a cold treatment before they will germinate so typical winter weather is just part of the process. As long as the seeds are not in soggy soil they’ll be fine. The outer coating will soften and when spring arrives the seeds should germinate.

I say “should germinate” because there are a lot of variables that can affect this process. Most importantly, if the seeds need to be in a type of soil for Potting Soil that Drains Well and doesn’t hold too much water. As long as the seeds don’t rot they will germinate eventually as long as they are viable seeds.

Step 5. Once the seeds start to germinate in the spring, move the container to a shady location to protect the young seedlings from the intense sun. Just keep them watered.

As they germinate you can pick them out of the container and plant them in flat, or tray that has cell packs or a jiffy pot and just let them grow and put on some size. You can fertilize them with liquid, foliar fertilizer spray.

Or you can simply leave them in the nursery container until the following fall. At that time simply remove them from the container and gently shake the soil loose and you will be able to pull the seedlings apart. Once separated just plant them in a bed or in your garden until they get larger. Or you can put them in pots and grow them that way.

Option #2 is Cold Stratification in a Refrigerator.

With this option, timing is extremely important. Please pay close attention to the timing and mark your calendar. A lot of people get this wrong and they end up doing the right thing at the wrong time of year and their results are terrible, usually a complete failure.

The steps for the refrigerator method are as follows.

Step 1. Collect the Japanese maple seeds in the fall just as described above. If you want to do the cut test as describe above you can do that now before you store the seeds.

Step 2. Do not soak them at this time. Instead, simply put them in a paper bag and store the bag in a cool dry place.

Step 3. Count backward 90 days from your last date of frost in the spring. Here in Ohio, we are not usually out of danger of frost until May 15th so that’s the date that I would start counting backward from. 90 days from May 15th would be February 15th. That’s the day that I would start stratifying my seeds.

Step 4. On your “start stratifying day” take the seeds out of the paper bag and soak them in hot water as described above for 24 to 48 hours.

Step 5. After soaking put them in a freezer bag along with some light, fluffy potting soil. A soil that can hold some moisture but not stay soggy. Shake up the bag thoroughly mixing the seeds with the soil. Once thoroughly mixed together poke a few small holes in the top of the bag so it can breathe a little. Or simply zip the bag almost shut, leaving one corner open a little.

Step 6. Place the bag of seeds and soil in your refrigerator. Do not push the bag all the way to the back of the fridge, things back there tend to freeze if left alone for very long. You want the seeds to be cold, but not freezing. If they freeze it won’t harm them, but the stratification stops or slows down considerably if the seeds and the soil freeze.

Step 7. Mark your calendar. Count ahead 90 days on the calendar and make a note to yourself to get the seeds out of the fridge on that day. Check the bag carefully. If you see seeds that have started to sprout simply pick out the germinated seeds with a pair of tweezers and carefully plant the germinated seed in a flat of well-drained potting soil, or seed starting soil. Put just a light layer of soil over the seed as you plant them. The first thing to grow out of the seed will be a root so put the seeds in the soil root down.

Step 7. After picking out all of the germinated seeds leave the bag of remain seeds on the counter at room temperature. Once the seeds and the soil warm up the rest of the seeds should start germinating quickly. It might be a matter of two or three weeks before all of the seeds germinate. Possibly longer. Just pick them out as they germinate and transplant them into the flat.

Be careful with fertilizers. Not enough is far better than too much. Miracle Grow mixed at 50% of the normal rate is really all you want to use.

Grow the seedlings out as described above.

Keep in mind, both green-leafed and red-leafed Japanese maple seedlings have value. You can always find somebody willing to buy a 12″ to 18″ Japanese maple seedling with red leaves. Those things sell like hotcakes! But even those with green leaves sell well, Especially in Our Members Area, because growers want them to use as a rootstock for grafting other interesting varieties too. Typically the ideal size for grafting is a diameter of 3/16″ to 1/4″.

This is my tutorial on grafting, but first I have to be 100% honest with you. I’m terrible, completely negligent about replying to comments on our Japanese maple site. Why is that? I’m only one person and a busy one at that. I spend a great deal of timing answering questions and help people in Our Members Area, and I do my best to reply to comments here on https://mikesbackyardnursery.com/. But I just can’t find the time to check all of our sites and I apologize for that. Here’s the Grafting Tutorial; Take a Peek.

Why bother to graft at all? Because the most awesome Japanese Maples in the world have to be grafted. Here are just a few to give you an idea of why I say that; Awesome and Beautiful Japanese Maple Varieties.

Questions or comments? Post them below and I’ll answer your questions.

We have a number of resources that might interest you, Take a Peek here.

We are addicted to reproducing plants by seeds. In this guide we will show how to successfully grow japanese maples from seed.

The Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is our preferred tree to start from scratch. The reason is that we use young plants to graft all kinds of varieties that we have: atropurpureum, dissectum, orange dream, little princess and so on.

We decided to write this specific guide of propagating Japanese maples from the seed, but the basic concepts are described in our general guide to seed germination.

Please visit our shop if you’re looking for seeds.

Before sowing, we do the stratification of the seeds. There are many variations of the process, but we like to keep things simple. So we put the seeds in a paper envelope, submerge them in a glass of water, close in a plastic bag and put them in the refrigerator for 4 weeks (sometimes more).

If you leave them longer, you will see that they germinate even in the refrigerator.

Seeds germinate even in the fridge

Sometimes we do not use the paper bag, and the advantage of putting the seeds directly into the clear plastic bag is that we can see when births occur.

  • Acer palmatum (Japanese maple) – 30+ seeds

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We used a simple seed tray. Just pay attention to the drainage holes. Often we have so many seeds that we need to improvise and use fruit transport boxes lined with a perforated plastic for drainage.

There are several recipes for germinating soil. Around here, we use half of peat and half of coarse sand. Peat helps to retain moisture while sand helps to drain. It’s the perfect combination for the seeds, never forget, you have to have the balance between drainage and moisture retention so that the seeds never dry out and never become flooded.

Then distribute the seeds as the image, with the wing up. If your seeds have no wing or if it is broken, don’t worry, the wing is only for the seeds to be carried by the wind.

Sow in container with the wing up

Finally, we gently water until the water leaves the drainage orifices. Be careful not to move the seeds.

You can also apply a fungicide to prevent “damping-off” after germination, but if you maintain good drainage and not excess water conditions, this is not essential.

We usually cover the trays with a glass or plastic and then with newspapers or something that prevents direct light. The “greenhouse effect” decreases evaporation and temperature differences between night and day and causes the seeds to germinate more quickly. The temperature must not exceed 24ºC.

To reinforce, be sure to protect the trays from the sun and the wind.

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