People often walk up to a Paperbark Maple growing in our fields and ask “What kind of birch is this?” They are always surprised by the answer, “It’s a maple!” Why the confusion? The Paperbark Maple is so named for its beautiful cinnamon-colored exfoliating bark. Huge curls peel back to reveal a lighter, rosy-brown inner bark.
Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum) was first introduced in the United States in 1907 by Ernest Henry Wilson who collected seedlings of the tree during a plant finding expedition in China. Two of these seedlings were planted at the Arnold Arboretum in Massachusetts where they are still thriving today. Between 1927 and 1945, seedlings were distributed to nurseries throughout the United States. The tree has become a popular specimen in American landscapes.
So why should you grow it? It has many appealing attributes beyond its gorgeous bark. This is a small tree, growing between 20-30 feet tall, with an interesting branch structure that does not require pruning to maintain. The small cut-leaf leaves are not typical of what one thinks of as a maple leaf. Rather, each leaf is comprised of three leaflets that are an attractive, lush green until late autumn when they turn a brilliant orange-red (a lovely subject for watercolor).
Paperbark Maples are easy to grow. They prefer average, well-drained soils in full sun or part shade. While they will be slower to mature, they will tolerate clay soils. Even though a Paperbark Maple does not compare in height or width to the Sugar Maple, it can still be considered a shade tree and is especially useful in small yards or as a focal point in a garden where it can be underplanted with perennials, short-growing shrubs, and bulbs.