This is Acer grisem, the Paperbark Maple1. Optimistically, I have room for ten new trees on my property and this species is on my short list. It’s recommended in numerous articles and books, and in theory it’s just right. The richly-colored bark, curling away like thin strips of heated caramel, has special look in any season. From a distance, in full-leaf, it tends to have a rounded outline and wide openings that let you see right through—one of my favorite qualities of a tree. Unfortunately, this very quality often exposes ugly branches. If I’ve seen one attractive Paperbark Maple, then I’ve seen two with unflattering structures that dispel its beauty.
I’ve tried to give it the benefit of the doubt, writing off unnattractive instances as a result of poor pruning at the nursery. Perhaps this is pronounced when young but they eventually grow out of their awkwardness? Does age work out the kinks? I want to think that its tendency is not to develop these uncomfortable limbs, but based on countless examples in yards, city streets, and campuses, I can’t help but conclude that these forms are natural.
This Paperbark Maple is located at the Center for Urban Horticulture. The bottom limbs have been pruned but I’m not sure that explains their crude U-shape. Because the branches above them don’t show any obvious cuts, and they display a very similar out-and-up bend. The winter interest of this tree is praised repeatedly—get close and look at that bark!—but what of the overall form? It’s always surprising to me how many plants are championed for isolated characteristics, as if we only see them while it is flowering, or when we’re within reach. Deciduous trees, in particular, are nothing if their form falters come fall.
Nonetheless, this acer remains on my short list—its status buoyed this year by two exceptional cases. In May, while waiting in front of the Good Shepherd Center in Wallingford, I noticed the two mature Paperbark Maples towering above. The largest I’ve seen, they were planted at least 30 years ago (shown here in the first and last picture). Without begging for attention, the pair elegantly frame the steps to the brick building. They are open throughout the middle, as the branches shoot straight up, and they dont exhibit any odd angles at the base.
In July, I passed a grove planting at the Bellevue Botanic Gardens. There’s a group of at least three in the perennial border2, planted only a few feet apart from each other. My first reaction was, They’re too close!, but the result is striking. Placing multiple Paperbark Maples together amplifies the appeal of their color and peeling bark, and the entwined canopy hides some of the very branches that I find questionable.
These two instances capture how torn I am about planting one of my own. They can be so right. But what if mine isn’t? I remained on the fence… until last Sunday.
This Paperbark Maple is located in Green Lake. At least what’s left of it is. I’ve seen all kinds of trees hacked and topped and carved out around power lines and it’s always frustrating to happen upon a scene like this, but it’s been easy enough to shake my head and move on, especially when the mutilated tree is far from my normal routes. This time, however, it hit me hard. Heading to dinner in a neighborhood full of beautiful trees and gardens, I was shocked because this seemed so avoidable. I want to say that I almost screamed and banged on the door of this house to interrogate whoever answered, but it was more like the wind had been knocked out of me. I’ve known why Cass Turnbull founded Plant Amnesty and now I felt why.
I don’t want to dwell on the problems here. And I don’t want to blame the home owners. I don’t want get into why business are even allowed to do this, or act like this is another example of the world coming to an end. It’s not. But it’s infuriating that this tree, which will now become an even greater problem than before, to the home owners future chagrin, is going to stand here like this, as winter comes: looking embarrassed, visibly aching, reflecting on a wasted decade.
On New Year’s Day I hadn’t planned a resolution for 2017, but when I was asked for one I said, without much hesitation, “To plant a Magnolia tree.” While somewhat trivial—1 tree, 365 days—my resolution didn’t consider practical matters. And just like so many champagne-infused wishes, my resolution began to fizzle out by Spring. As I begun to scrutnize various Magnolias in person, to read more, and consider their requirements and my space, doubt sunk in.
Now, after seeing that Paperbark Maple sheared of its canopy, I’m not thinking about any Magnolias. My current projects may keep me from planting a tree before the year is over, but regardless, I have a new resolution: to plant an Acer griseum in honor of the destruction in Green Lake. In fact, maybe I’ll plant two. Or three. I was so mad on Sunday that I could’ve put 100 in the ground. I guess sometimes you choose a plant, and sometimes a plant chooses you.