Japanese maples are one of the most iconic bonsai species. I get so many enquiries from beginners wanting a Japanese maple but I usually advise them against starting off with this species. Why? Not only is Japanese maple more prone to getting burnt leaves in our harsh Australian climate, it is also much more demanding when it comes to pruning.After pruning, pinching and defoliating, Japanese maples have a tendency to produce lots of new buds. If all those buds are allowed to grow the trunk and branches can thicken up very quickly and usually in places you don’t want producing ugly swollen spots on the trunk and at the ends of branches.
To avoid these problems it is necessary to recognise the issue and take extra steps to avoid the problem.
Here’s a photo of one of my Japanese maples a couple of weeks after cutting all the leaves.
You may be able to make out all the new shoots growing from the nodes on the branch. If those are all allowed to grow the branch would be nice and dense but by the end of the growing season the end of that branch would be thicker than the lower part – unnatractive reverse taper.
How does one deal with the issue? Here’s another branch on the same tree. Again, multiple new shoots emerging from nodes all along the branch.
To prevent thickening it is imperative that excess buds be removed. At this stage the job is quite easy. Simply rub the new shoots off with your finger.
Sharp eyes will have noticed that while I’ve removed the buds from the centre section there are still too many near the tip (upper right) and on the branch growing toward the right in the picture so I will need to get back and finish the job.
For those beginners who are wondering what they can grow if Japanese maple is too difficult, try Trident maples. Tridents are more hardy and far more forgiving of less than perfect technique. Tridents also respond to pruning far better so if you discover there is a problem you can cut it off and it will grow back easily giving you a second chance to grow a great bonsai.