If you think the only option for bringing winter warmth to your property is another ubiquitous holly, think again. The spectacular paperbark maple (Acer griseum) will energize your landscape with its color, texture, and structure. The tree's cinnamon-colored bark exfoliates in curling sheets to reveal darker, reddish brown wood below.
This handsome though ofter overlooked maple was collected in 1901 by the renowned botanist E.H. Wilson on an expedition to China. Today, fans admire the tree for its four-season charm and minimal pest and disease problems. At maturity, the paperbark maple stands about 25-30 feet tall. Its leaves are greenish blue with a fuzzy silver underside in summer and turn reddish orange in the late fall. Patience is the key to this slow grower-it adds only 6 to 12 inches per year. A juvenile tree can take 15 years to reach a mature height. The tree begins exhibiting its trademark bark in second-year wood, and it maintains the same degree of exfoliation throughout its life, so be sure the one you choose has pronounced papery bark.
"From young age to old age, it is simply a gorgeous plant," says Michael Dosmann, Putnam Fellow at the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University.
The paperbark maple is not fussy, though it prefers to grow in moist, well-drained soil. A solid performer in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 5 through 7, it will also grow in the Northwest and can survive in Zone 4 if planted in a protected area. The paperbark maple thrives as an understory tree in a lightly shaded border, an environment that mimics its woodland origins. It grows well, though not quite as vigorously, in a sunny central location such as a front lawn, where it can be used as a centerpiece to anchor a landscape that needs focus.
For bold contrast, plant a paperbark maple near a stand of firs or pines. Its round structure and reddish color is the perfect accent to conical evergreens. To highlight the paperbark maple's wood and provide shelter for wildlife, consider planting yellow-twigged shrub dogwoods (Cornus stolonifera 'Flaviramea'). Underplant with a groundcover such as silvermound artemisia (Artemisia schmidtian), blue fescue (Festuca glauca), or coral flower (Heuchera micrantha 'Pewter Moon') to create a living mulch that complements the tree's bark. Wherever you place it, a paperbark maple will ensure a striking, colorful landscape year-round.