Sunday, February 12, 2012

Plants with Winter Interest Part 7 - Paperbark Maple

A Very “A-peeling” Tree - Jill Hudock

Paperbark Maple - Hudock Landscape
Acer griseum (Ay-sir griss-e- um) is one of the very few, elite trees that get rave reviews every time. The Paperbark Maple is always included in respected horticultural experts “Top Ten Must-Have Trees of All Time”. What’s all the fuss about?

The Paperbark Maple is a slow growing, small-sized (30’ tall and 25’ wide) specimen tree utilized as a focal point in the winter landscape due to its exfoliating bark. Its trunk and branches sport shaggy sections of curling bark in shades of cinnamon, cream and toast. In the winter’s landscape, the peelings stand out well against a snowy background. This is really its main claim to fame, hence its common name, Paperbark.

In spring the tri-foliate (three sectioned) leaves emerge bluish-green with a gray underside. (Griseum is Latin for gray.) In autumn the leaves color a brilliant red and are the last to fall from the tree. No two specimens are alike, according to Dr. Michael Dirr. For those unfamiliar with the celebrated horticultural educator, suffice it to say that his word is golden. Dr. Dirr is especially enamored with the paperbark, “No finer tree could be recommended.”

Paperbark Maple - Jill Hudock Landscape
It grows in well-drained soils, full sun to partial shade and isn’t picky about ph. It will adapt to most soil types but is not drought tolerant. So for all of you who like to plant and forget, this may not be your type of tree, especially since it is expensive.

Paperbark Maple - Hudock Landscape
Because it grows so slowly and is very difficult to propagate (to make more of), the Paperbark Maple is a rarity in the landscape. Its seeds don’t produce many viable offspring; therefore man must propagate this specimen through vegetative means. The gene pool is very small as at least 92% of its seeds are sterile. This requires most Acer griseums to be started from cuttings.

Native to central China, it was brought to the US in 1901 by famed plant hunter, E.H. Wilson. Since then it’s been wooing the hearts of all who see her. Well, almost…

Twenty years ago I planted a Paperbark Maple in very compacted, clay soil in a bed with roses, a sand cherry and lamb’s ear used as a groundcover. The maple was recommended by a landscape designer I trusted. While I wasn’t wild about it when I saw it the nursery, I thought it would be good to expand my horticultural knowledge and try something outside of my usual tastes. It was different. Maybe I’d learn to like it. Sort of like classical music…I know it’s supposed to be “good” but it’s really not my style.

Over the years, my Paperbark has allowed me to participate in some interesting conversations. Like the time my neighbor and I were chatting and she stopped mid-sentence. Staring aghast at the maple she asked, “Is your tree sick?” It was an honest assessment, I must admit. Even after I explained the virtues of said tree she remained skeptical at best.

Paperbark Maple - Hudock Landscape
 And then there was the guided tour of the beautiful grounds surrounding Vanderbilt Mansion in Asheville, NC. As the smug Master Gardener led our random group of 20 people up to a small Paperbark, she asked, “Does anyone know what this tree is? It’s very rare and hard to grow.” I had to raise my hand and burst her bubble. The look on her face was, as they say, “priceless”.

After the group meandered on to the next “rarity” I told her I bought mine at a local nursery in Chambersburg, PA, which brought another dumbfounded look to her face. How could I possibly have one? This rocked her world, “fer sure”, since I was obviously not a Vanderbilt.

And lastly, but certainly not “leastly” is my great brush with fame. It happened two springs ago, during a private tour with Ireland’s most celebrated gardener, Helen Dillon, in her famous Dublin garden. Helen greeted my Australian touring companion, our Irish driver and me at her front door. She told us to “help ourselves to the back” and she’d soon follow.

After pinching myself at my excellent fortune to be there with her, in her garden, I tried to relax and began to marvel at her plantings. Exquisite! As we walked around the garden with its famous canal, oohing and aahhing, Helen bounced back and forth to see if “we were still out there, since many don’t stay nearly as long”. I was incredulous at that statement. Who wouldn’t want to stay as long as she permitted? At that point I think she started to understand we were serious about her garden and she started to chat. Pinch me again!

There were many specimens I didn’t know…mostly tropical plants she was experimenting with. But when we entered the area of the only tree not planted along the perimeter walls, I knew exactly what it was. I stared at it, comparing it to mine. I don’t know why, I guess that’s what we gardeners do. Was it taller, healthier, better shaped? Not really. While I was assessing this, Helen mistook my staring. “Acer griseum, Paperbark Maple”, she chirped, “quite rare and unusual.” Umm, you know I had to. “Yes,” I replied, “I have one.”

This brought a whole new level of respect from Helen Dillon, after she got over the shock. And I believe that is what prompted her to ask, “Would you like to see the inside of my house?” OK, let me think about that for a nano-second!

So, as you can see, going out on a horticultural limb can sometimes have its advantages. Pun intended. Now I’m wondering… what classical music could do for me??


  1. What a great story! Not only did I learn something (always appreciated!) but I was also entertained through Jill's personal stories and her hit-and-run humor. To top it all, the photos were amazing. Although untrained, my dad was an arborist in his own right and very connected to "his trees" and my daughter was a forestry major. This post made me smile for so many reasons and was a marvelous treat on a cold winter day.

  2. Really appreciated this post as well, because I not only have one I have 25! I have a small backyard nursery and got a batch of these for sale last year. Don't think I sold one because no one knew what they were. Currently they are about 3' and more whip like. Now that the trees are a year older I am hoping I can move more this spring. Great story Jill, thanks!

  3. Thank you for your comments! It's nice to hear from folks how an article affects them.

    And Larry, best of luck this year with your treasures...I hope this article spreads the word. I have noticed more Paperbarks being used in public landscaping. Hershey Cancer Center has 50 of them lining their new driveway entrance. Isn't that going to be spectular in a few years? :)