Northwest Native Plant Spotlight – Vine Maple

Acer circinatum fall color

Vine Maple fall color in full sun

Acer circinatum; it may be a somewhat ubiquitous plant here in the Pacific Northwest but this versatile plant is popular for good reason.  Commonly known as the Vine Maple, it derives its name from its wild, sprawling growth habit when in shaded conditions, and the sinuous, multiple stems it often has.  Some of the most desirable features of this small tree (approximately 15 to 20 feet tall and wide) are its multiple trunks, and its long-lasting parade of colors in the fall, which range from red to yellow and sometimes includes purple.

Vine Maple Flowers

Vine Maple Flowers (Photo credit: wolfnowl)

In early spring Vine Maples sport tiny groups of red and white flowers which develop into attractive red-winged seedpods, or samara, by mid to late spring.  Vine Maples also add some interest to the winter landscape with their unique skeletons and reddish coloring found on the younger branches.

Vine Maples exhibit rather different personalities dependent on the amount of sunlight they receive (boy, can I relate to that).  In more sun, the growth habit will be more upright and dense, and fall color will be stronger, displaying more red and orange hues.  In a shady location growth can be wide, open and sprawling, sometimes even having stems that arch back to the ground which can sprout new growth and roots, creating thickets.  Fall color will be more yellow in this environment, or not noteworthy at all if in deep shade.  I like their traits best in a site that receives just a little afternoon shade, so the leaves have less of a chance of burning, the growth habit is still largely upright and so they still display good fall color.

Acer circinatum fall color in part shade

Vine Maple fall color in part shade, at St. James Church in Vancouver

Thicket of Acer circinatum

Mossy mess of Vine Maples in full shade, creating a thicket

Another thing I really love about vine maples is that you can prune them in many different ways to fill just about any spot in your garden, and they are adaptable, strong growers.  For a taller and more upright habit, completely remove some of the lowest side branches, cutting them off near the trunk, just above the collar; this will also help expose the beautiful base of multiple trunks.  You can also do some cutback pruning on the outer part of the side branches.  This method is recommended if you have one sited close to a structure.  Or you can cut back at the top of the tree which will promote more lateral growth.  Vine Maples can also even be coppiced successfully.

Acer circinatum pruned

I’m not sure what I think about this, but this shows the flexibility you have when designing with Vine Maples. These two trees are in a fair amount of shade, being under an overhang on the north side of a building. It appears they have received pruning from the bottom up, to highlight the multiple trunks, and also regular cutback pruning on top to restrict height and create a low, wide canopy.

When so much in the natural northwest landscape turns yellow this time of year, if any strong color at all, it’s nice to see a plant that’s not afraid to do its own thing.  Enjoy the show while you still can, those remaining tenacious leaves can’t hold much longer.


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