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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Wildflower Wednesday, April, 2014 -- Vine Maple

Although I very much miss the sugar maples, and other kinds of maple trees, which were everywhere when we lived in Massachusetts, and that gave us such stunning fall color, I have wholeheartedly embraced the PNW native vine maple, Acer circinatum, as a garden-worthy plant (and I think other gardeners here in the PNW should too).

Although technically an understory tree is not a wildflower, I'm going to take the opportunity here, in my Wildflower Wednesday post, to champion the native vine maple as a great plant for the garden (it does flower after all). And I have my reasons.

Last week I visited the Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden in North Seattle, for a two-hour class on the use of natives in the Miller Garden. Basically, it was a two-hour tour that focused on pointing out which plants in the garden were West Coast natives. Before the tour started we were given a handout with the names of the plants and their general locations. About halfway through the tour it occurred to me that there were no vine maples on the list, and the tour guide hadn't even mentioned them.

So I asked her about them. And I got the stink-eye.

"Betty Miller was a great champion of Japanese maples. The garden has a lot of those."

......Ok, then....

Japanese maples are alright, I guess. But especially here in the PNW, they are way over-used. At least two of my non-gardening neighbors have them, both pruned into that ubiquitous umbrella shape. They're very much at home in a Japanese garden, and they appeal to a certain aesthetic.

That aesthetic isn't my personal favorite, and I prefer vine maples. And I still don't understand why I got the stink-eye for mentioning them. I mean, Betty Miller died in 1994, and since then the garden has changed and been updated with lots of new introductions that she probably never even heard of.

Why not some of the new named varieties of vine maple?

The vine maple does have a pretty little cluster of flowers that hide under the leaves
Acer circinatum 'Pacific Fire' in my garden

'Pacific Fire' has lovely red twigs and accordion-pleated new foliage

A. circinatum 'Pacific Fire' when first planted here back in 2010

Not actually a vine, the vine maple is a small multi-trunked understory tree with sometimes twisty, sinuous limbs (hence "vine"). In undisturbed areas, the vine maple grows with bigleaf maple, Douglas-fir, western hemlock, grand fir, and Pacific dogwood, with sword fern underneath. Hardy in Zones 6 to 9, it thrives in medium moisture soil in full to partial sun. It's native from British Columbia to northern California.

Species vine maple in a corner of my garden devoted to PNW natives

It works well as a leafy companion to Trillium ovatum, Asarum caudatum, and Dicentra formosa

Besides the 'Pacific Fire' that I have growing in my garden, there are quite a few named varieties of vine maple that are fabulous choices for any PNW gardener.

From the Dancing Oaks nursery website:

'Burgundy Jewel' -- "The larger leaves on this Vine Maple are dark red-purple when they come out in the spring, fading to a coppery-red in late summer. The fall color is rich and varied. This is an upright tree with stiff branches forming a vase shape. The trunk and branches are an impressive deep reddish-purple - beautiful in winter. It's great for an accent, a focal point, or for a dense screen."

'Del's Dwarf' --  "Many are unaware of this choice selection that forms a 4'x4' foliage poof with summer-long reddish-bronze, orange, yellow, and green leaf color: autumn in summer!"

'Little Gem' -- "This jewel produces a thicket of candy-red stems on shrubs that reach 3 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Unfortunately hard to find and thus seldom used in landscapes, but very valuable as a dense, rounded, and attractive shrub with a great texture and winter interest. A good alternative to the winter red stems of Cornus stolonifera."

'Monroe' -- "Who would have guessed that this dainty leaf belonged to our native from Southern Oregon? Dissected leaves with red and gold fall color on strongly horizontal branching shrubs 8 ft tall x 12 ft wide."

'Pacific Sprite' -- "Forest green leaves are crinkled in upon themselves in congested clumps resembling the Acer palmatum 'Shishigashira' or Lion's Mane Maple."

A. circinatum 'Monroe' and 'Pacific Fire' are both Great Plant Picks as well. Read about them here and here.

Wildflower Wednesday is hosted by Gail at the blog clay and limestone. You can read her post here, about three of her favorite native wildflowers. Check out the links to other bloggers' posts about wildflowers too!


  1. I'm laughing over your comment about getting the stink eye when you mentioned the vine maples--was it not a lecture about native plants? What's up with that? I chose mine for their sinuous, multi-stemmed habit--the difference in habit between wild-dug and grown-in-cultivation is worth mentioning--and for their ability to grow in "encumbered spaces".

  2. The answer to your question was obviously not on her list of carefully rehearsed points. I hope she took note and looked up 'Vine Maple' afterwards.

  3. They are beautiful native plants, the Pacific Fire is especially striking. I like the structure and how they work so well in your garden with the advantage of not being overused.

    Alison, I must say you looked great in the photos on Peter's blog this morning. Love the new look.

  4. Oooo, I LOVES me some vine maples. I just got Pacific Fire last fall and I must say, it's doing great. Your native garden area is so lush and lovely, Alison. I love the ginger - Asarum caudatum. Yay for vine maples and posts about them!

  5. Hi Alison, not heard the term 'stink-eye' before ... not here in Scotland ... but I can just imagine how quelling it is intended to be. I have a feeling that our native Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) would elicit exactly the same response from an awful lot of folk. We have a huge specimen in our new garden ... and it is a lovely tree ... but it seeds so freely that many would consider it a garden thug. I have read of some folk going so far as to move house to get away from the sycamores! Enjoyed your post and loved the photos. Elizabeth

  6. I love your term, "stink-eye" and it was totally undeserved!!!! You apparently caught this tour guide off guard with your plant savvy. It does indeed seem preposterous that there are no native Vine Maples in the "NATIVE" garden. Hello people? LOL. ... Years ago before we moved to my present home/garden, we lived on 5 acres. Down by our lake there was a little baby vine maple struggling to survive in a hot, sunny spot. I rescued it, brought it to my present garden and now it towers at about 12 feet. Right now the bees are loving the flowers. It grows by a pond, not a lake but it is happy and so am I. Great post.

  7. Great post Alison, and kudos to you for speaking up. I also loved your statement about non-gardening neighbors and their umbrella shaped Japanese true!

    So other than the "stink-eye" incident did you enjoy the Miller Garden?

  8. I love drives through the countryside in autumn to see the vine maples ablaze. Unfortunately, the one R planted to shade his studio does not color up (I mistakenly thought they all did).

  9. I've forgotten what variety we have but we do have this beautiful Acer growing in our garden. Native there, exotic here :)

  10. I've seen some Vine Maples that are attractive, your flowers are amazing, I've never noticed them. I'll have to try to see some other Maple flowers.

  11. Vine maples aren't plants we see down here in hot, dry SoCal but that's clearly our loss. It's a very pretty plant and certainly deserving of proper respect.

  12. You made me laugh with your 'Stink eye!' I love it, it's so descriptive; brief and to the point.
    I haven't come across Vine maples but they look lovely. Pacific Fire has wonderful coloured stems.
    I think it is really important that gardeners grow plenty of native plants and you clearly make space for them in your garden.
    A great post, I really enjoyed it.

  13. I've always loved vine maples, and I'm coming to appreciate them more than Japanese maples, too. I see many on hikes every year and they have such a wild grace, an ethereal beauty, that Japanese maples can't match.

  14. Vine maple looks like a great native to use in the PNW! If I lived in that area you'd have sold me on them.


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