Fifteen years ago I started an annual trek across the country in search of, arguably, some of the world’s finest plant materials. My first trip to the Pacific Northwest, Oregon specifically, was thrilling before I even hit the ground. As the plane was descending, I was fortunate enough to be sitting on the left side and Mount Hood was higher than the plane’s left wing. Mount Hood is a stratovolcano which boldly stands some 50 miles east-southeast of Portland. Home to twelve glaciers and listed as potentially active by the USGA (U.S. Geological Survey), Mount Hood’s elevation is 11,249 feet.
One of the perks of my job is to fly around the country and hand pick our plants for the coming year. Every year I visit Oregon and Mount Hood and look forward to having dinner at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. For those of you who have seen the movie The Shining with Jack Nicholson, the Timberline Lodge is showcased. Timberline Lodge stands at 6,000 feet elevation, located on the southern flank just below Palmer Glacier. A National Historic Landmark, Timberline was built in the late 1930’s as a WPA (Works Progress Administration) project. This project, built during the Great Depression, is a classic example of the vision and fortitude those workers had during a most challenging time. A true craftsman style lodge, Timberline was built with huge timbers and local stone and is so aptly named as it stands where the Timberline starts or ends.
One tree native to the Northwest is Acer circinatum (Oregon Vine Maple). Commonly found from British Columbia to northern California, Vine Maple typically grows as an understory tree beneath more majestic conifers. With legions of huge Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir) in the Pacific Northwest, Acer circinatum sits comfortably at their feet. Frequently found as a multi-stemmed tree, Oregon Vine Maple can attain heights of 10 to 20 feet. Inconsistent fall color has a collage of yellow, orange and red hues. The leaves are palmately lobed with 7-9 lobes and the fruit is a two-seeded, red samara. Samara’s are those whirly-gig things we put on our noses as kids when they fall from the sky. When I first learned this tree, I thought the foliage to be very similar, in form only, to Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’ (Golden Full Moon Maple), both having a fan-shaped somewhat rounded outline. I later learned that Oregon Vine Maple is closely related to Acer japonicum (Fullmoon Maple) and Acer pseudosieboldianum (Korean Maple). Enjoying moist to wet locations, its growth rate is slow to medium. Highly adaptive, but preferring some afternoon shade and protection from wind, Acer circinatum would be an outstanding patio plant. Also noteworthy is that the new shoot growth is reddish in color.
Typically out on the west coast in July and August, this past year I visited the Pacific Northwest in February. A chance to see gardens in their dormant state gave a whole new appreciation for winter garden interest. While touring Monrovia Growers, from a distance, I saw the intense red color marking of what I thought was Acer palmatum ‘Sango Kaku,’ the famed Coral Bark Maple. After closer inspection I found that it was Acer circinatum ‘Pacific Fire’. Screaming for attention set against a grey stone wall, ‘Pacific Fire’ has stronger red and orange tones in the winter. As for spring growth, ours arrived this spring with the same intense red color markings and as I write this article in late April, the bark is still blood red. Martin Hanni, ornamental deciduous tree and perennial grower from Switzerland for Monrovia Growers and I had quite a conversation about this tree’s many attributes this past winter. As Michael Dirr says, “there is no better fraternity than that bound by the love of plants.” Subtle differences noted for ‘Pacific Fire’ include distinctive red bark, new growth emerging purple and orange in the spring, mature leaves which are a bright green in the summer and golden-yellow fall color.
Introduced into cultivation in 1826 by famed American botanist and explorer David Douglas, Oregon Vine Maple is well suited in New Jersey for no other reason than their tolerance to clay soil. An ability to thrive in acidic soils only welcomes it more to the Garden State. Consider pruning this tree in late winter as you can thoughtfully look at skeletal patterns to enhance its appearance. ‘Pacific Fire’ offers big seasonal changes for your landscape and won’t take up a large piece of real estate to do it.