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Bigleaf maple fall color

Seattle's Common and Rising Star Maples, and the Devil Withal

    Any account of Seattle maples must give first place to what is surely the city's most common tree, bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). Outstanding for abundance, large size, and immense leaves golden in fall (AS IN THE ABOVE PHOTO), it is very familiar. However, its presence is waning yearly. At the turn of the century it was our most planted street tree. Now, the majority of such specimens have died or are rotting, and for many years it has been illegal to plant bigleaf maple as a street-tree because its roots so readily buckle concrete. Also, insect or disease attacks are more prevalent than in earlier decades.
    Currently, in Seattle's woodland parks, Norway maple and sycamore maple are colonizing faster than the bigleaf, because they reproduce easily in shade. This scenario means bigleaf maple is, as a group, past its prime in the arboreal drama of Seattle's lifespan. As the specimens in the Washington Park Arboretum decline and are removed, the result will be an improvement, overall, but not without the price of some costly removal work and sunburned rhododendrons.
    Many Seattleites are of Norwegian background. Norway maple (Acer platanoides) seems poised to take the lead as Seattle's premier maple in the future. Though native-plant lovers may sigh, nature's bottom line is survival of the fittest. Norway maple's toughness, crisply handsome looks, and weedy reproductiveness all bode well for it. If money did grow on trees, investors would do well to swell their portfolios with stock of this naturalized foreigner. Nearly 50 Norway maple cultivars have been grown in North America whereas bigleaf maple has none to speak of. The Norwegian can be bought in a wide variety of forms, colors and sizes. Every nursery sells them.
    Although we respect strength in a tree since power compels attention, we really thirst for beauty. However elegant their branching, maples are preeminently associated with lovely fall color. Neither bigleaf maple nor Norway maple are better than average in this attribute. Both are usually pleasant enough but not consistently spectacular. For the best Northwest display of brilliant orange among the large-growing species, there is no rival to the eastern American sugar maple (Acer saccharum). Seattle's dry summers and sterile gravelly soils are perfect for stressing this species, thereby, as it were, inflaming its passion and causing it to blush sooner and redder. Seattle's largest sugar maple, 90 feet tall and 72 feet wide, is a street-tree on Capitol Hill, on 17th Avenue East, just south of East Roy Street.
    If pure red is preferred, the best large shade tree maple is a another denizen of eastern United States woodlands, red maple (Acer rubrum). Unlike sugar maple, this has been overplanted here, at least during the last 20 years. Its performance has not been without blemish; some clones, perhaps because of delayed graft incompatibility, have performed poorly. Neither it nor sugar maple are the slightest bit inclined to run wild.
    Although not known for fall color, phenomenal rapidity of growth characterizes silver maple (Acer saccharinum), which also hails from the eastern United States and similarly loathes our dry summers too fiercely to naturalize here (except rarely in swampy or wet places). Some promising hybrids between red maple and silver maple are now available; these are sold under the name Acer x Freemanii.
    Do you desire lively red from a smaller-scale maple? If so, the ideal trees are Japanese maples (Acer palmatum) in cultivars such as 'Osakazuki' or 'Tobiosho'. Another relative from Japan with equally stunning red fall color is the fernleaf full-moon maple (Acer japonicum 'Aconitifolium').
    A few Japanese maples are at their best in spring, with the young emerging foliage looking all the world like fiery red fall color in April. These cultivars include 'Chishio', 'Corallinum', 'Deshojo', 'Seigai' and 'Shindeshojo'.
    The most overrated imposition of mapledom in recent years is the coralbark Japanese maple (Acer palmatum 'Sango Kaku'). Its leaf is small, conventional, and seems to scorn flamboyant fall color as unworthy of its attention so settles for an undistinguished yellow. When it is naked, however, it shines --scintillating bright red stems that really warm the spirit in winter. The problem with coralbark maple is that it is too brief in its glory. As a fast-growing youthful shrub or small tree it draws admiration from all observers. But give it 10 or 20 years, and bit by bit it degenerates into nondescript background, while other maples are growing more stately and no less beautiful with age. An improved version of the coralbark maple called 'Beni Kawa' is worth trial, however. Even if it proves to be only a brief fling, it ought to be great fun while it lasts.
    The maple with the most fascinating name happens to be one of the dullest imaginable in leaf and form and would be utterly condemned if it did not have intriguing flowers and its catchy name, devil maple (Acer diabolicum). Yes, this is one of those plants gardeners want to grow, or at least know, simply for the name. It is from Japan, where the name "oni-momiji" means devilish maple. It was so called because of its "wild and violent appearance of the leaves." Westerners, unaware of the reasons behind the name diabolicum, imagined it was derived from the "stinging" bristles on the seeds and/or the two tiny hornlike styles (like devil's horns) on them.
    Because Acer diabolicum is so slow and dull, it is exceedingly rare. Do not despair. On the lawn west of the Japanese Garden parking lot, you can see two devil maples near the 35-foot wide hornbeam maple (Acer carpinifolium). The southernmost devil maple is male, the northern one female. In spring, the female flowers up close are joyously fascinating salmon-pink. But they result in seeds that look like unsightly clusters of waste paper among heavy foliage on a clumsily stout trunk; the entire tree is absolutely graceless, its fall color tawny (or, rarely, a good yellow).

(Originally published in the Fall 1994 Washington Park Arboretum Bulletin, pages 2-5.)

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Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert
Arthur Lee Jacobson plant expert

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