Companion Plants for Japanese Maple | Ground Cover

With colours that change over the course of several seasons, Japanese maples have a lot to offer all on their own. These ornamental trees are often the star of the show in both relaxed landscapes and formal garden beds. 

Though you could allow your Japanese maple to stand alone, adding a few other plants to the mix will help bring out its true potential. 

Below you’ll find my favourite companion plants for Japanese maple trees and the various ways I recommend using them in your own garden design.

Companion Planting Explained

Companion planting aims to create beneficial relationships between two or more different plant species. You can find many examples of traditional companion planting by looking at vegetable gardens.

One of the most famous examples involves growing corn, beans, and squash all in the same bed. This is commonly known as the Three Sisters planting method.

In the above example, each vegetable brings something unique to the garden:

  • The corn grows tall and provides a sturdy structure for the bean plants to climb.
  • The bean plants help anchor the corn stalks into the ground to prevent weather damage. The beans also fix nitrogen into the soil, something that all three plants need to grow big and strong.
  • The squash plants stay low to the ground, so they don’t compete with the corn or beans for sunlight. Their large leaves shade the soil, helping to keep it cool and retain valuable moisture.

The Three Sisters method produces very tangible benefits for both the plants involved and the gardener. It’s one of the best ways to illustrate the ideas behind companion planting. However, you can also employ these concepts in ornamental beds and landscaping.

A Few Benefits of Companion Planting

There are many reasons to employ companion planting throughout your garden. As I mentioned above, this strategy is commonly used to get the most out of fruit and vegetable crops but is equally as effective in the context of ornamental plant species.

Here are the biggest benefits you can expect to see from proper companion planting with Japanese maples:

Pest Control: Many plant species deter common pests by giving off strong aromas or releasing potent chemicals. Growing these plants next to more vulnerable varieties is a wonderful way to manage pest activity in your garden.

Structure and Support: Most landscapes benefit from a mix of structural specimens and more herbaceous species. One of the reasons you might want to combine these types of plants is that you can use tall trees and shrubs as natural supports for climbing varieties. They can also help protect more delicate plants from harsh sunlight, wind, and more.

Wildlife Diversity: From pollinating insects to songbirds and everything in between, it’s a fact that a more diverse garden will attract the widest variety of wildlife. In addition to providing many flowers for visiting pollinators, you should also grow plants that provide shelter (e.g., trees and woody shrubs) and other food sources (e.g., berries) for visiting critters.

All-Season Interest: I don’t know of many plants that truly look their best all year long. If you want your garden to shine during all seasons, the best strategy is to grow a variety of plants that flourish during different parts of the year.

Ideal Companion Plants for Japanese Maple

Any good companion plant must enjoy the same growing environment as its partner. When it comes to selecting plants to grow alongside Japanese maples, the main things you want to look for are a tolerance for partial shade and acidic, well-draining soil. 

Outside of the above requirements, choosing the best companion plants for your Japanese maple largely comes down to aesthetic goals. While all of the plants I’ve listed below work wonderfully with these ornamental trees, I’m willing to bet some will strike your fancy more than others.

Groundcover

Hosta: Hostas thrive in the same soil conditions as Japanese maples. Hosta roots take up very little space, so these foliage plants can be easily tucked around the base of a tree. 

In many cases, the shade provided by a small maple will protect the hosta leaves from direct sunlight and weather damage. When the hostas bloom in spring and summer, they’ll draw bumblebees, hummingbirds, and more to your garden.

Japanese maple with hostas and azaleas

Fern: Another excellent groundcover plant for use around Japanese maples is the fern. Almost any species will flourish beneath one of these small trees but I also encourage you to seek out native varieties when possible.

 Many gardeners like to grow Japanese-painted ferns beneath their maples. The two plants come from the same region and — unsurprisingly — look great together.

Ferns won’t attract pollinators but they do provide much-needed shelter for other small animals. I know rabbits aren’t every gardener’s favourite creature but I personally love that the local bunnies choose my ferns to hide their nests.

Japanese maple with ferns

Sedum: If your Japanese maple is surrounded by a rock garden or similar bed style, I highly recommend planting low-growing sedum. These hardy succulents thrive in relatively barren conditions. Planting sedum around your Japanese maple will add a lovely dose of texture and colour throughout the growing season.

Coral Bells: Coral bells are often seen growing next to hostas and ferns, so it only makes sense that they would also mesh well with Japanese maples. These herbaceous perennials come in a wide range of colours that you can use to coordinate or contrast with your maple tree’s foliage.

Ornamental Grasses

Black Mondo Grass: Despite the name, this incredibly unique ornamental shrub is actually a type of lily. Its main attraction is the purple-black grass-like foliage. In the summer, black mondo grass also produces pink or purple flowers.

Black mondo grass remains short (typically under 8 inches) and gradually spreads to fill the available space. Use it as a shade-tolerant ground cover in place of traditional turfgrass around your Japanese maple.

Hakone Grass: Also known as Japanese forest grass, this is a tough ornamental grass that tends toward a mounded appearance. It’s unique in that it loves shade, making it an ideal companion for a Japanese maple.

Flowering Annuals & Perennials

Begonia: Begonias are tender perennials, meaning that they can survive for many years in areas with very mild winters. However, they also make excellent flowering annuals in colder regions. 

One of the best things about begonias is that they love the shade. There’s really no better plant to use as colourful filler around the base of a mature Japanese maple. Tuberous begonias are my favourite type but I encourage you to explore all of the available options at your local greenhouse!

Hardy Ginger: Also known as garland flower or ginger lily, hardy ginger is a non-edible perennial related to the common spice. It typically grows in tropical climates but — according to North Carolina State University — can survive up to USDA Zone 7 with protection.

Hardy ginger grows up to 6 feet tall and enjoys acidic, well-draining soil. Since this plant prefers full sun exposure, avoid placing it too far beneath your maple tree’s foliage.

Lenten Rose: A rose in name alone, this short perennial is winter hardy and available in a range of colours. Since lenten rose blooms very early in the year, it’s a great way to jumpstart your landscape while you wait for your Japanese maple’s spring leaves to emerge.

Aster: On the other hand, asters provide a healthy dose of colour in the fall when most other flowers are fading away. There are several different types of asters available. I like to use low-growing varieties around the bases of ornamental trees and shrubs.

Columbine: Columbine is a herbaceous perennial that flowers in late spring — just before the rest of the garden really gets going. If you live in North America or Europe, consider planting native columbine to attract pollinating insects and hummingbirds.

I recommend this plant for growing next to Japanese maples because it prefers partial shade and cool, well-draining soil.

Woody Shrubs and Trees

Gardenia: This tropical evergreen shrub is famous for its sweet-smelling flowers. Most gardenias grow up to 6 feet tall and prefer partial shade. They also thrive in acidic, fast-draining soil.

Gardenia shrubs are known for being high-maintenance but I still think it’s worth trying your hand at growing one if you live in USDA Zone 8 or warmer. 

Hydrangea: Hydrangeas are located at the intersection between hardiness and beauty. These shrubs tend to enjoy acidic, shady growing conditions and many varieties will tolerate extreme cold. Many gardeners — myself included — believe that the dried flower heads provide interest well into fall and winter.

Plant panicle hydrangeas behind your Japanese maple tree to create a backdrop for the trunk. More compact varieties can be grown around the base for added colour and texture. 

Mountain Laurel: Mountain laurel is one of the best understory shrubs for use under a Japanese maple or similar tree. It has evergreen leaves and an interesting growth habit that provides visual interest even when the shrub isn’t in bloom.

Holly: If you’re hunting for another large shrub or small tree that will grow in the same environment as a Japanese maple, consider planting some type of holly. You won’t want to plant holly directly below your Japanese maple but the two plants make excellent companions from several feet away.

Dogwood: The main drawback of the Japanese maple is its lack of significant flowers. Planting a flowering dogwood tree nearby will add contrast to the landscape without introducing direct competition.

Rhododendron and Azalea: I recommend using shrubs of the rhododendron family in the same manner as you would gardenias, hydrangeas, or mountain laurels. These flowering shrubs are moderately shade-tolerant and can be used as attractive understory growth around an established maple tree.

Japanese maple with azaleas

Tea Olive: The tea olive is a fragrant evergreen shrub native to parts of Asia. It tolerates partial shade well and prefers acidic soil. While some varieties are capable of outgrowing the average Japanese maple, tea olive grows slowly and can be maintained via pruning.

Poor Companion Plants for Japanese Maple

Any plant species that prefer full sun exposure or damp growing conditions are unlikely to fare well alongside a Japanese maple. I also don’t recommend trying to grow anything that needs alkaline soil in the same bed as one of these acid-loving trees.

Be wary of planting other trees or large shrubs too close to your Japanese maple. While they might look fine together, you could end up with competing root systems after a few years of growth. Japanese maple roots are relatively compact — i.e., it’s safe to plant these trees within a few feet of most structures and they won’t choke out smaller shrubs — but the same can’t be said of some other species.

Citations

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Ben's horticultural interest grew when graduating from Hertfordshire University in 1997. Having contributed to numerous publications including Better Homes & Gardens, Garden Design Magazine, and The English Garden. He is also the author of Propagating Houseplants Made Easy.