Northwesterners celebrate fall with the turning of maple leaves just as our compatriots on the sunrise coast do. We just have different species of Acer in our woods.
New England and the rest of the Appalachians get hoards of visitors each autumn as rubberneckers and leaf peepers clog backroads and byways to soak up glorious sugar maple (Acer saccharum) reds and golds.
I grew up in central West Virginia where maples colored the hillsides each autumn, along with many other hardwood species. This sugar maple across the street from our house, on the campus of Glenville State College, was always particularly brilliant. When it lit up orange we knew autumn had arrived.
If you have a lot of space, a sugar maple makes a nice specimen tree in your yard. It provides plenty of shade on hot summer days as well as the brilliant color we think of when we hear “maple.”
Now I live in the Pacific Northwest and we don’t have native sugar maples, although they grow well in a home landscape. What we do have in abundance are bigleaf (Acer macrophyllum), vine (Acer circinatum), and Douglas (Acer glabrum var. douglasii) maple. All three color up nicely this time of year, but my favorite is the vine maple.
Vine maple is prolific in the forest understory throughout western British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern California. It is quite tolerant of shade, although it can get a bit leggy when it doesn’t get much sun. In particularly moist habitats it can form dense thickets. Vine maple also grows well in full sun, where it often begins to color up in late summer, much earlier than one would expect, particularly on drier sites.
In the garden, vine maple is an excellent choice almost any place you’d otherwise consider planting non-native Japanese maples. While vine maple foliage isn’t as deeply cut as many of the Japanese varieties, it’s about the same size small tree, with similar size leaves. You can plant it either as a specimen tree or at the back of a shady border. It prefers moderately moist humusy soil but will tolerate dry sites once established. Our native climate is winter wet and summer dry so vine maple is accustomed to those conditions. It does not tolerate summer heat.
This time of year, vine maple foliage turns brilliant shades of orange and red that contrast nicely with the dark green of conifer needles and the rich gray-browns of their massive trunks. In the winter months you can easily recognize vine maple by its greenish branches and twigs that twist and turn, trying to find light for the summer foliage.
Vine maple is also a great wildlife plant. Its seeds nourish songbirds, squirrels, and chipmunks. Deer and elk find its foliage and twigs tasty, so expect some browsing if you have deer in your garden.
Horticultural cultivars of vine maple are starting to come on the market. One of the more interesting is called “Pacific Fire” and has brilliant red twigs like a coralbark Japanese maple. There’s also a cultivar with deeply divided leaves called “Monroe.” Portland Nursery has both of these for sale.
The native species is said to be easy to propagate (I admit I’m not a plant propagator) from seed, by tip layering, or from softwood cuttings. Or you can dig up seedlings from underneath established trees and grow them on. Of course, you’d only do this on land where you have permission to do so.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service vine maple data sheet has more info on propagation.
Vine maple has an attractive branching structure so it has year-around interest. Delicate red flowers appear about the same time the leaves are unfolding. Cool summer greens are followed by brilliant fall reds and oranges. It’s worth having in your landscape if you live somewhere with cool summers.
I have a handful of photos of vine maple flowers and samaras on my Pacific Northwest Wildflowers website. While you’re there you can use the search box to find photos of the other northwest maples, Acer macrophyllum and Acer glabrum.
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