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.