Barking Up the Right Tree

Barking Up the Right Tree
Stripped of all their foliage standing naked amongst the winter landscape are some pretty amazing maple trees. Most people, it seems, are content buying the proverbial red cutleaf or laceleaf maple (Acer palmatum ‘Dissectum-Atropurpureum’) or the tiresome upright ‘Bloodgood’ maple. Perhaps it’s because their neighbor has purchased a similar style or maybe it’s because it’s the only type they have heard of. Truth is there are literally dozens of species and hundreds of named cultivars to tempt and satisfy even the most eclectic gardeners’ taste. With so many choices to choose from, it seems silly to always pick the same two or three types, especially if year round garden interest is your goal.

Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple) has become more commercially available in recent years; however it is still difficult to propagate. A noteworthy candidate for your garden, Paperbark has something going on all year. Dark bluish-green, trifoliate leaves (three leaved) kick off the attributes of this small to medium sized tree. Adaptable to a wide range of soil PH balances, griseum’s only stipulation is that you place it in well drained soil. Having a somewhat rounded canopy with age, Paperbark works well as a single lawn specimen or in areas of limited real estate. Outstanding, bright red, fall color can rival even that of ‘Burning Bush’. But let’s face it; what introduces most to this famed tree is the exfoliating bark. The peeling, flaky, cinnamon brown bark jumps out at you, not just in the winter, but all year long. Native to China and the fact that no two are alike only adds to the uniqueness of this versatile tree.

Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku’ (Coral Bark Maple) is an exciting Japanese maple. The unfolding leaves, early in the spring, show the slightest hints of red digressing quickly to a bold green. As fall approaches, these tiny, congested leaves take on color marking from yellow to pumpkin. A medium sized tree, Coral Bark, attains heights of fifteen to twenty five feet comfortably and prefers well drained soil. As the common name implies, Coral Bark, has just that. Beginning in the fall, the younger stems start to color up taking on red hues. Imagine the pumpkin color foliage backing these bright red stems. Only to impress us more are these same stems acting as a beacon entrenched in the snow storms of winter. Truly an impressive sight, you would be hard pressed to find a better winter interest tree.

Somewhat of an obscurity, but still noteworthy, is the species Acer pensylvanicum. Commonly known as the striped or snakebark maple, the bark is clearly what sets this apart and has propelled its notoriety. Quoting Michael Dirr, the horticultural demigod of our time, “The unflattering nickname refers to the whitish vertical fissures that develop on the bark, which when set against the greenish background conjure visions of a snake’s skin.” Whether an “unflattering nickname” or not, there is no denying the beautiful, pronounced, long, vertical, white stripes of the species. Two covetous cultivars available to gardeners are ‘White Tigress’ and ‘Erythrocladum’. ‘White Tigress’ has dark green bark with conspicuous white striations. Other common attributes prevail as it maintains typical green leaves in the spring changing to yellow in the fall. ‘Erythrocladum’ is a magnificent small tree with incredible bright pink bark, striped white, in the winter. Considered to be somewhat problematic to grow, the secret to their success is well drained soil. Overall presence in your garden for Acer pensylvanicum is fifteen to twenty feet tall and wide.

While flowers can be beautiful and sometimes fragrant and certain trees are known for their unique foliage, we can not forget that bark appeal can be equally as enticing. When you visit your local garden center this spring, admire the beautiful, red laceleaf maples, but remember the bright color markings of winter bark also.

Robert LaHoff
Hall’s Garden Center