Paperbark maple is a relatively small landscape tree that provides a unique beauty to the landscape, thanks to its fall color (typical of maples) and its exfoliating (peeling) copper orange to cinnamon reddish/brown bark (quite unusual for maples). Thus, this tree adds ornamental interest year-round. Like eucalyptus and birch trees, the peeling bark delights children, who may harass the tree a little more than you like, unless you guard against it.
When mature, the paperbark maple grows to about 15 to 30 feet tall and wide, usually with an oval to a rounded oval shape. In rare instances, old trees may grow as high as 40 feet. This tree grows more slowly than many maples, so it will take years to reach this height. Its slow-growing habit also means this can be a more expensive tree to purchase from garden centers.
The coarse-toothed leaves are 3 to 8 inches long, with three leaflets. When the leaflets are positioned together, the familiar palmate shape of the classic maple becomes evident. The leaves are darker green on the top surface, with a more silvery-green color on the bottom sides. The foliage turns a beautiful reddish-orange in fall, later in the season than most other maples. This, combined with beautiful bark that peels back in large colorful curls, makes the paperbark maple a good specimen for adding late fall and winter interest to the landscape.
Paperbark maples produce greenish flowers in spring (usually April), but the blooms are not significant. The flowers then give way to the familiar maple seed samaras (winged seed pods), about 1 1/4 inches long. The seeds are unusually large for maples.
Paperbark maple (sometimes spelled paper bark) is a member of the Sapindaceae family of plants, with a species classification of Acer griseum. It originally comes from central China and was brought to England by E. H. Wilson in 1899. It was soon brought to the U.S. by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University. Occasionally, you may see this tree classified as Acer nikoense var. griseum. The tree is winter hardy in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8.
Unlike many maples, paperbark maple is an excellent small tree for small yards, where it can work well as an ornamental specimen near a deck or patio. It can also work well as a lower-level tree below a towering canopy of taller trees. It is also a popular tree for bonsai enthusiasts, thanks in part to its slow-growing nature.
Paperbark maple is a good choice in areas where clay soil makes other trees problematic. Once it is well established, this species is fairly tolerant of drought.
Paperbark maple is a good choice when you want to have color in all seasons since the peeling reddish-brown bark is very attractive against a snowy background.
Growing Paperbark Maple
Grow this maple in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 8, placing it in a location with full sun or partial sun. The best soil will be moist with good drainage, but the tree can thrive in many different soil types and textures, including clay soils that challenge many other trees. Paperback maple does well in a variety of soil pH levels.
Soon after planting, you will need to decide if you want the tree to have a single trunk or multiple stems. To train it as a single-trunk specimen, choose a central leader and prune away all others. Other than this, not much pruning is required—just periodically remove any dead, diseased or damaged wood you notice. Pruning is best done as soon as the tree enters dormancy in late fall or early winter. If you wait until spring to prune, don't do it until later in the season, as maples tend to bleed sap.
Propagation can be done by cuttings, grafting or seed. For grafting, use the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) as the rootstock for best results. The germination rate of seeds is very low, so cuttings are the best option.
For the most part, paperbark maple is remarkably free of problems from pests and diseases. You may see aphids, caterpillars, mites, and scale on this tree, but these pests are rarely life-threatening. Potential diseases include:
- Crown gall (Agrobacterium tumefaciens)
- Leaf spot gall (Brought on by mites)
- Phytophthora cankers and rots (Phytophthora spp.)
- Verticillium wilt (Verticillium spp.)