The vine maple (Acer circinatum)—what’s not to like? Well, if you don’t like something about one vine maple, look again, a second one may give you what you want. Don’t like the color? Try the one down the street. Too big? Too small? Too short? Too tall? You don’t have to be Goldilocks to find the A. circinatum just right for you!
Before talking about the differences, let’s describe the characteristics that apply to all vine maples and help us identify the species.
- Either a short tree or a tall bush (dang, there’s the first difference!), vine maples are a multi-stemmed woody plant generally growing to 15-25’ at maturity.
- Their opposite, serrated, palmate leaves have 7-9 shallowly notched lobes and change from bright green to shades of yellow or red in the fall.
- Flowers and fruit. They have white flowers and their winged fruit (samaras) are in a straight line.
- Ranging from southwest British Columbia to Northern California, vine maples are found within 200 miles of the Pacific Ocean, meaning they are found not only in western Washington, but on the eastern slopes of the Cascades as well.
- Although vine maples like some shade during the day, they can be found growing in full sun, for example in burn areas. Liking moist soil, they can tolerate some dryness, for example the understory of eastern Washington Douglas fir forests.
From the descriptions above, you can see that the “box” into which a vine maple fits is pretty big! Chances are you may find it “just right.”
One of the vine maple’s most striking and endearing variations is its color. Each individual bright green leaf on each individual tree seems to have its own individual time table for morphing into ever-changing shades of green, yellow, red and gold in the fall. The result is a stunning jumble, yet orderly procession of color both within individual trees and across different trees. One of my favorite drives in the fall is Mount Hood Highway, east of Portland, Oregon, where this riot of color can be clearly seen. Here blazing red trees jostle next to bright yellow ones waiting for siblings of mixed green, yellow, and red to make up their minds (they never do).
Whether it is a species vine maple in your yard or a group of the trees along a fall hike, this tree never ceases to provide a surprising panoply of color. For those not wanting to be surprised each fall, you can plant a cultivar and the color will be no less stunning, but more predictable .
Civilized or Barbaric
Bring ‘em home for dinner or consign them to the wilderness. In either case, hardy attractive vine maples are a great choice as additions for your home’s landscaping or as key plants for restoration projects. In both environments the tree’s seeds and flowers provide food for birds and small mammals.
In the wild (and sometime in your yard), deer and elk browse on the fresh buds, leaves, and twigs in the spring. Elk also will browse on the twigs in the winter.
In restoration areas, the tree is used to help stabilize soil on slopes and in wet areas; it is also content to grow in drier areas of your yard as long as it gets a little shade during the day.
Vine maples tend to grow shrubby in the open, but get to be leggy and twisted as they seek light in the understory of Washington forests. In your yard, the tree is happy to accept pruning, thus showing off different looks: a large or small bushy shrub, a single stemmed tree, or something in between. The pictures here show how, in a yardscape, vine maples can be adapted to your preferences.
Cultivars – Formalized Variability of the Species
Given the wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors observed in the wild, and the popularity of the tree in landscaping, it is not surprising that several cultivars of Acer circinatum are now available in nurseries. These cultivars have been propagated vegetatively from naturally occurring variations found in the wild.
The beauty of a cultivar is that you always know what you are going to get (they are all identical to the original plant). Accordingly, while you still enjoy the benefits of a native plant, you can now buy a vine maple that will have the specific shape, size, and color that you want. Listed below are some of the cultivars available from northwest nurseries.
You can see these cultivars as well as several others growing amidst a large collection of western azaleas and dwarf conifers at the Lake Wilderness Arboretum in Maple Valley, WA.
|Vine Maple Cultivars|
|‘Bort’s Broom’||Leaf color migrates from green to bronze to red during growing season. Fast growing dwarf to 4’ in 10 years.|
|‘Del’s Dwarf’||Compact shrub up to 3’ tall in 10 years. Yellowish-green variegation on leaf lobes migrating to red in fall. Leaves are smaller than the species.|
|‘Hoyt Witch’s Broom’||A 3-4’ dense mound. Green leaves half the size of the species become brilliant red-orange in fall.|
|‘Little Gem’||Dwarf shrub 3’x 3’. Red tinged in spring, green in summer, mix of green, orange and red in fall.|
|‘Monroe’||Grows to 13’. Deeply lobed leaves turning to yellow leaves in fall. First A. circinatum cultivar to be described and named.|
|‘Pacific Fire’||12-14’. A multi-trunk tree. Red bark provides year-round color. Light green leaves turn gold in the fall.|
|‘Pacific Sprite’||Crinkly dark green leaves summer becoming yellows, red, and orange in fall. 6’ tall x 2’ wide in 10 years.|
|‘Sunny Sister’||Spring leaves apricot-colored changing to light green in summer. Fall color is bright yellow to orange. 6’ tall x 3’ wide in 10 years|
Popular in both cultivated and natural environments, Acer circinatum is one of Washington’s most versatile native plants – covering a broad spectrum of color, shape, size, and habitat. It’s always worth a second look when you consider a plant for your yard or restoration project.
John Neorr is a Washington Native Plant Steward and serves on the board of the South Sound Chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society.