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by Nancy Schramm

The Joy of Species Maples

Despite what I used to think, the Japanese maple is NOT the only Acer on the block! I grew up in love with the small Japanese maple that shaded my childhood playhouse. It was so important to me that when my parents decided to move our home and nursery, I demanded that they dig and move that tree, too. To my surprise, Dad acquiesced! I don't know how old the tree was when it was moved, but the transplant was a success and that tree thrived for over 30 years in it's new home. It was during the time that we (the tree and I) both lived on Mozart Ave (the 2nd location of Carman's Nursery) that I found out there were other maples worth growing. Species maples. Depending on whom you listen to, there are between 100 and 140 species maples. I haven't seen (or for that matter heard of) even a fraction of that many, but that's not for the lack of trying.

Acer truncatum is one of the first species maples I learned about. It deserves to be more widely planted. The new leaves open a gorgeous purple red before turning a rich green for the rest of the summer. It is more tolerant of pollution and hot, dry, sunny locations than the Japanese maple, but has the same attractive form and a similar leaf shape. Fall color can range from a plummy purple to yellows and oranges.

The trident maple (A.buergerianum) is so named because the leaf has three points (also sometimes referred to as a duckfoot). Another lovely small shade tree, the trident maple, is prized by bonsai enthusiasts. The fall color can be magnificent. I have some that turn blood red, but I've also seen some with yellows and oranges mixed in.

The first time I saw a small paperbark maple (A.griseum), I was positive it was a poison oak plant. "Leaves of three" is a perfect description. Look a little closer though, at the trunk, to see where the name originated. The cinnamon-colored peeling bark is extremely ornamental during the winter when it is no longer hidden by the dark green leaves. Add to all this a striking red fall color for a wonderful year-round package.

If you are lucky enough to have some nice shady areas, consider planting a vine maple (A.circinatum). In the deeply shady, moist Pacific Northwest where it is native, this maple can indeed grow like a vine. But just as often, given a little clearing, it can slowly grow into a lovely specimen tree. The leaves can be quite large and round and somewhat pleated, with a serrated edge that looks almost frilly.

Snakebark maples. How's that for a common name? It refers to a group of several species maples including A.capillipes, A.rufinerve, and A.davidii. The leaf shapes vary, but as these trees gain even just a few years of maturity the green trunk and larger branches develop fine silvery-white lines that are very distinctive in winter.

 Don't start dreaming about making your own maple syrup, but the sugar maple(A.saccharum) can be a wonderful tree in this area.

Potentially quite large (75') the fall color can be spectacular, though sometimes uneven if we have a long, warm autumn.

One of my favorite maples, and the most rare (and, I'm sorry, probably the hardest to find), is A.pentaphyllum. The 5-lobed leaves are very narrow and extremely deeply divided which gives it a delicate, lacy appearance. This maple is very slow growing. Agonizingly slow, according to my friend Betsy Clebsch ("the" salvia expert) who said she was never so happy to take out a plant than her A. pentaphyllum that refused to grow! If you have plenty of patience, it will turn yellow, orange, and pink in the fall.

But wait-how about a maple with fragrant flowers? The amur maple (A.tataricum ginnala) has clusters of small yellow fragrant flowers. After that, the typical "helicopter" seeds form, with the amur maple seeds being red and very ornamental. Leaves on this tree are 3-lobed, with toothed edges. They turn brilliant red in the fall.

I must tell you a bit more about maple seeds. All of these maples I've been talking about (indeed all maples) form the same type of seed, but they vary both in size and color. Some are held singly, like Christmas tree ornaments, some grow in small clusters, and still other (like on our native bigleaf maple, (A.macrophyllum) hang in long attractive chains. The species maples (as opposed to selected cultivars) will generally come true to the parent when grown from seed. Refrigerate the seed in damp sand for three months before sowing.

Species maples are worth the adventure to find.
Mail order sources:,
Local sources: Carman's Nursery (408) 847-2313, West Side Nursery (408) 842-8895

Copyright. Out and About Magazine

           Third generation owner of Carman's Nursery, Nancy Schramm and her husband recently moved the nursery from Los Gatos to Gilroy where they have lived for 24 years. The nursery is known for growing rare and unusual plants including bonsai starters, dwarf conifers, rock garden plants and (of course) less common fruiting plants. Nancy has been a member of the Western Horticultural Society since 2003. She follows in the footsteps of her father Ed Carman, the founder of Carman's Nursery. Ed was one of the charter members of the Western Horticultural Society and also served on the first Board.

Contact Nancy at

Western Horticulture Society
PO Box 166, Mountain View, CA 94042
(650) 948-4614 or (650) 941-6136