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A. palmatum is typically a tree reaching heights of about 15 m (50 feet) and often growing as an understory plant in shady woodlands. It may have multiple trunks joining close to the ground. In habit, it is often shaped like an upside-down pyramid (especially when younger) or takes on a dome-like form (especially when mature).

Leaves of A. palmatum are about 5-12 cm long and wide, palmately lobed with approximately five to seven acutely pointed lobes. The flowers are produced in small cymes; the fruit is a pair of winged samaras, each samara 2-3 cm long with a 6-8 mm seed. The seeds of Japanese maple and similar species must be stratified in order to germinate.

Even in nature, A. palmatum displays considerable genetic variation. As such, even seedlings with the same parent tree can show difference in such aspects as leaf size and shape, and color.

Japanese Maple has over 1,000 cultivars that have been chosen for particular characteristics and can be propagated only by grafting. Some of these are not in cultivation in the Western world or have been lost over the generations, but new cultivars are developed each decade.

These cultivars are chosen for such phenotypical aspects as leaf shape and size (shallowly to deeply lobed, some also palmately compound), leaf colour (ranging from chartreuse through dark green or from red to dark purple, others variegated with various patterns of white and pink), bark texture and colour, and growth pattern. Some cultivars of A. palmatum are sturdy trees that are larger and more hardy or vigorous than the species. Many are shrubs rarely reaching over 0.5 m in height. A few very delicate cultivars are typically grown in pots and rarely reaching heights of more than 50-100 cm. Some of the more distorted or dwarfed cultivars of A. palmatum are grown from witch's brooms, but more are based upon based upon clippings taken from plants that are mutated and/or have been artificially selected over many generations.

Many cultivars have characteristics that come into prominence during different seasons, including the color of new or mature leaves, extraordinary fall color, color and shape of samaras, or even bark that becomes more brightly-colored during the winter. Some cultivars can scarcely be distinguished from others unless labeled. In some cases, identical cultivars go by different name. Conversely, different cultivars go by the same name in other cases.