A deciduous shrub or small tree reaching heights of 6–10 m, rarely 16 m, often growing as an understory plant in shady woodlands. It may have multiple trunks joining close to the ground. The flowers are produced in small cymes, the individual flowers with five red or purple sepals and five whitish petals. The fruit is a pair of winged samaras (pollynose), each samara 2–3 cm long with a 6–8 mm seed. The seeds of Japanese maple and similar species require stratification in order to germinate.
Well drained soil is preferred, and the trees grow strongest when not over-fertilized. Some prefer more shade or sun than others, but generally do fine in any location as long as it's not too dry or too wet.