For the never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter, and confounds him there,
Sap checked with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnowed, and bareness everywhere.
-Shakespeare (sonnet 5)
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but leafless bareness is an enhanced asset to Acer griseum, paperbark maple. This is a tree that literally shines in defiance to Shakespeare’s image of “hideous winter.” As perhaps the most striking of all of the over 120 species of maples worldwide, its bark provides the ornamental interest for this small-sized, slow-growing tree.
A native of Central China now endangered in the wild, the bark presents an artistic collage of textures and colors. Some branches look sinewy, polished-brown, even metallic, other sections of wood yield lingering cinnamon-colored paper-thin peelings, hence the common name. Noted horticulturist and Mount Auburn aficionado Michael Dirr in his contemporary classic work, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants, adds this coda to his characterization of its bark “…Verbal descriptions cannot do justice to this ornamental asset and only after one has been privileged to view the bark first hand can he or she fully appreciate the character, snow acts as a perfect foil for the bark and accentuates its qualities.”
For the average person with a cursory image of what a maple leaf looks like there might be surprise or even disbelief that this is a maple when presented only with a sample of its foliage. The compound leaf composed of three leaflets, each 2-2 1/2” long with coarsely toothed margins, is one of several trifoliate-leaved maples native to Asia. Autumn color is variable but may be spectacular red or orange on some of our paperbark maples.
A January trip to view our paperbark maples is well worth braving the winter weather. On your next visit here seek out these luminescent living sculptures on Meadow Road, Field Road, Birch Avenue, Bigelow Avenue, Story Road, and Euonymus Path among other locations.
*This Horticulture Highlight was originally published in the January 2011 issue of the Friends of Mount Auburn electronic newsletter.