Dwarf ‘Beni-hime’ Japanese maple perfect for container

Judith Adam

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Dwarf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Beni-hime’) growing in a container. (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling)
Dwarf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Beni-hime’) growing in a container. (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling)
Dwarf Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Beni-hime’) growing in a container. (Photo by Brendan Adam-Zwelling)

This spring, I chanced upon some dwarf Japanese maples, and Acer palmatum ‘Beni-hime’ found its way into my nursery cart. ‘Beni-hime’ grows painstakingly slow, no more than two inches (5 cm) a year, eventually forming a dense, spreading mound about 40 x 40 inches (1 x 1 m) in size. However, when planted in a container, it doesn’t reach its potential size, and stays at 24 x 24 inches (60 x 60 m).

Its dwarf characteristics are immediately evident — the leaves are only one and a quarter inches (3 cm) wide, attached to short petioles extending from delicate twigs. The shrub’s compact, diminutive stature makes it useful for providing detail in small spaces, and it displays various red tones all season. The spring foliage emerges bright pinkish red, then fades to green in summer, with the exception of prominent clusters of red leaves at each branch tip. The red tips remain all summer, until the fall when the entire plant turns raspberry and purple. There’s always something colourful going on with ‘Beni-hime’, and it shows its best colour when given half a day of direct sun.

I’m famous for selecting plants that are borderline hardy in my garden, and this intriguing Japanese maple is no exception. ‘Beni-hime’ is hardy to Zone 6b, and my garden is in Zone 6a. That might seem like a small difference, but it could be fatal in a severe winter. I don’t want to protect it with excessive layers of leaves, boxes or burlap wraps, and I also don’t want a plant that carries winter damage each year and doesn’t thrive. So ‘Beni-hime’ is in a nice clay pot (lined with plastic with a drainage hole cut in the bottom), and will join the carousel of plants that winter in the garage, emerging in spring for placement where I can enjoy them constantly.

I frequently mention this tribe of moveable plants that winter in the garage, and hasten to say they don‘t require any extra attention or consideration. The only difficulty is that the car is being squeezed out, but purchasing increasingly smaller vehicles solves the problem! I like having interesting, special plants in containers that I can place where I sit outdoors, and can be moved to sun or shade as the weather and their requirements change. In late autumn, I line them up against the interior garage wall, and sometimes give them an open plastic bag to sit in to help preserve soil moisture. A last watering (and a mid-winter check to be sure none is too dry), and that’s all the care required until they come out again in spring. These special plants couldn’t live in my open garden, but they’re safe in the garage where temperature never dips below -2°C.

Dwarf Acer palmatum cultivars aren’t consistently available in most garden centres. My ‘Beni-hime’ was part of a small number brought in just for quick spring sale (purchased at Mori Gardens in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.). But specialist nurseries (such as vinelandnurseries.com) often have them in stock year round, and these are well worth looking for. Other slow-growing, dwarf cultivars suitable for permanent container culture include ‘Akita Yatsubusa’ (narrow-lobed, pink-yellow-red leaves), ‘Beni-komachi’ (greenish-red twiggy shrub), ‘Cynthia’s Crown Jewel’ (yellow-pink new leaves turn green), ‘Murasaki-kiyohime’ (upright, green leaves with purple edges) and A. p. dissectum ‘Midori-no-teiboku’ (cutleaf green leaves with flecks of pink-red). A small collection of these versatile Japanese maples could grow into a moving forest for your garden!

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11 thoughts on “Dwarf ‘Beni-hime’ Japanese maple perfect for container”

  1. Hi Judith, Just bought a beni-hime japanese maple. We live in zone 7 in NE Alabama. Will this be a problem for us since we do get down in the 10’s and 20’s in the winter, but warm back up in a couple of days. Chill factor is between 0 and 5 degrees. Should I be concerned because it will be outside ?

    • Unfortunately no, Carol. Here’s what our plantswoman says in the piece: “I’m famous for selecting plants that are borderline hardy in my garden, and this intriguing Japanese maple is no exception. ‘Beni-hime’ is hardy to Zone 6b, and my garden is in Zone 6a.” Check out local nurseries for what works in your area/zone that might fulfill a similar role.

  2. I was very interested to hear about another dwarf Japanese maple that can be overwintered in an unheated garage… this one is gorgeous and would be worth a try in our 5A zone (‘tho your recent mag tells me I could be in 5B)..
    For the 2nd winter I am storing my container dwarf Japanese maple Acer palmatum ‘Oregon Sunset’, in the garage…It was one of a selection mentioned in a past issue of GM (Fall 2012) as a good candidate for this and I was able to get one of our local nurserys , (Murray’s, Portugal Cove, Newfoundland) to order it in for me.. it has been great so far..(too bad we can’t post pics on here!). and I will certainly be looking into trying to get your suggestion to add to my deck containers next Spring.
    thank you
    Mary Meehan
    Pouch Cove, Newfoundland & Labrador

  3. What exact method would you recommend for the container planting? You mention a clay pot but will ceramic do? What kind of “plastic” do you recommend? I have a Kiyo Home and Mikawa Yatsubusa on the way that I would like to put in pots. What size of pot should I use to accommodate them (2′ or so now, and up to 5′ tall & wide eventually)?


    • Hi Elke,
      I think it would need some winter protection. (Wind gusts at that height would create lower temperatures.) For instance, surrounding the plant with large-size plastic bubble wrap, then putting another container over it for the winter months, might work. That’s not too strange to look at over the winter. Or, putting the container in an unseen corner of the balcony, up against the wall, and covering the whole thing with a piece of carpeting. Here is a different kind of idea, if you would consider an alternative plant. Proven Winners Magic Carpet spirea (Spiraea japonica ‘Walbuma’) has a similar foliage characteristic as the ‘Beni-hime’ dwarf Japanese maple. The foliage is yellow-orange, and tips of branches carry red leaves all summer. Autumn colour is russet-red. The spirea grows 24 x 24 inches (60 x 60 cm) and is hardy to Zone 4. I know it’s not the same thing as a Japanese maple, but it would be both colourful and frost hardy on your patio. Just a thought.
      — Judith

    • Hi Valerie,
      When I find interesting plants, such as this dwarf ‘Beni-hime’ Japanese maple, I don’t let their hardiness zone rule them out. Keeping this plant and others that are borderline hardy in containers solves the problem. I move them into the garage for winter, then back out in spring. And that’s a solution that works in most Canadian regions.
      – Judith

        • Hi Elizabeth,
          The garage is unheated and attached to the house. In theory, an unheated attached garage is about 10 degrees warmer than the outdoor temperature in winter. Plants I put in the garage for winter all have some amount of winter hardiness, just not enough to risk outdoors in Zone 6a, where I live. Soil in container plants does freeze and that causes no harm. So far, I haven’t ever lost a plant this way. So long as the plant has some level of frost resistance, it should be safe in an unheated attached garage. If the garage were freestanding and not attached to the house, it would be colder, and I would be more careful about that.
          – Judith


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