One key to a great landscape is that it looks good year around. It’s really pretty easy to have a showy spring or summer display. To have an attractive yard that you can look out onto through your window in January and smile is more challenging. Selecting plants that provide year around interest should be the goal of every gardener. Today, I’d like to talk about two such plants. A pair of related small maple trees with great winter bark, the Three Flower Maple and the Paperbark maple.
The Three Flower Maple (Acer triflorum) and the Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) are two smaller trees reaching only 25-30 feet high after many years. They are near relatives in the maple family that look very different. Yet, they also provide several of the same benefit.
First, they both have TERRIFIC bark that adds a lot to all seasons, but especially the winter garden. The Three flower maple has a shaggy bark that exposes a buttery white inner bark.
The Paperbark maple has a deep cinnamon color that peels in large curls like a Paperbark birch (Betula papyrifera). Its bark reddish brown bark truly stands out year around. This is one of the tree’s I am most asked about at the garden. Almost everyone who sees it for the 1st time is fascinated by it. I like it so much it was the first tree I planted in my front yard, about 10 feet from my front door
The other real big benefit of these trees is their great fall colors. The Paperbark maple turns a nice deep red real late in the season. In the Chicago area this tree has bright red leaves showing in November when most other trees are already barren.
The Three flower maple gives colors similar to a sugar maple forest in Pennsylvania, yellow to orange to red, all on the same tree. Sometimes even on the same branch.
The cool thing about these trees is the more light a leaf gets the redder it is. So, if the whole tree is in the shade, you get a nice buttery yellow fall color. If it is in the sun however, the outside leaves are red. Then they turn to orange and finally yellow the more they move into the tree and get more shade.
A couple other benefits of these trees are there slow growth and clean disease free foliage. Both trees gradually get bigger while you are not looking. Neither requires more than pruning to remove defects and perhaps removing lower branches to reveal their showy trunks.
The Three flower maple has a dark green leaf. The Paperbark maple has a bluish green leaf color.
If you are convinced you would like one of these trees in your garden, be aware that the Three Flower maple is said to need acid soil, while the Paperbark maple is supposed to be more tolerant of alkaline soils. My experience with these trees is that the Three Flower maple is indeed a little touchier and has had a few cases of branch dieback and leaf spotting. The Paperbark has been a plant it and forget it tree for me.
That being said, if someone put a gun to my head and said I would have to pick only one, it would be the Three Flower maple. If mine can ever approach the fall color of one I saw at the Morton Arboretum one fall, I would be more than satisfied with my choice. The bark color also lights up my winter landscape, in a way the darker Paperbark does not. Luckily, I don’t have to choose.
Jennifer Phillips says
Thanks so much for your advice. I am a beginner gardener and don’t want to make a mistake with our tree purchase. We had to have two mature trees removed from our front yard. It looks very bare. I am considering planting either a gingerbread paper Bark maple or three flower tree. The spot is approximately 60 feet wide by 20 feet deep and west facing in full sun. I cannot find either of these trees to purchase. Do you know where I could buy them and should I buy one or two?
Thanks so much!!
How close to the foundation can you plant a paperbark maple? I was thinking about one for the shad and color along the south side of my home. I live in a city and neighbor’s driveway is 8-10 feet from my foundation
I’d do it.
Danelle S. says
We’re putting in a stone patio (SW side of Chicago) with a center 10×10′ planting area where we intend to put a multi-stemmed vase shaped tree. It’s a toss up between the redbud, the serviceberry, and either the paperbark maple or this three-flower maple. I love the branching habit of the redbud and how it is “airy” instead of deep shade, but our soil is quite alkaline with clay…don’t want to replace it if it dies. The serviceberry seems too “busy” and vase shape without ever reaching a nice arching canopy. Of the four I listed, what would your recommendation be?
The three flower maple does prefer acid soil over Alkaline so I would rule that one out. I would go with the Redbud (fast growing but yes likely to be short lived as they do get Verticillium Wilt and just die after about 25-30 years) or the Paperbark maple (Longer lived, but SLOOOOW growing).
If you can find a Paperbark big enough to be happy with at planting go with that. Otherwise choose the redbud and enjoy it knowing someday you may need to replace it. If money is an issue, I would lean toward the redbud as well.
Thanks for all the valuable information. We have a shallow foundation- 2 feet below grade. Is it ok to plant a serviceberry tree and other coniferous trees near the house?
Hmm. I wouldn’t. I think I would stick to small stuff like boxwood, shrubs and perennials.
Beverly Hornickel says
I am /looking for a tree that has a small yard and poor drainage. Please help with advice. Thanks Bev
If you are looking for a shade tree my post Trees for Wet areas gives some. The Frontier elm is one that is not too big. Otherwise dwarf varieties of any of those trees will work too, such as the Fox Valley River Birch.
Linda Tinker says
We have two red sunset maples and the root system is pulling up our front brick path and starting to pull up the sidewalk. I’ve red they are notorious for shallow roots. I was afraid to get another maple. Will the paperback maple give us the same problem? We want to plant it in a parking strip. Also, our red sunsets have grown to be 30 feet so I wondered how many years we might have to wait to get a 25 foot tree.
The paperbark maple should never cause substantial problems with your sidewalk unless it is planted right next to it. It will take a long time to get a 25 foot tree maybe 15 years depending upon your climate and its size at planting. You might want to try a hybrid like ‘Gingerbread’ which will grow quicker but have less nice bark in my opinion.