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Green Neighbors: Vine Maple: Under the Radar And Over the Rainbow

By Ron Sullivan
Tuesday September 11, 2007

Maybe a bit early like so many things this year, the vine maples at the Botanic Garden in Tilden Park are putting on their quiet fireworks show.  

One of our short list of native maples, vine maple, Acer circinatum, is way too uncommon in the gardened landscape. I suspect that people haven’t had enough practice with it as a tame plant to know its best habits and favorite conditions, though they’re easy enough to see in the wild.  

They do need water and a moist atmosphere. They’re native mostly to coastal places north of the Bay Area up through British Columbia; my favorite spot to meet them, though, is along the creek in the understory at Burney Falls, up north of Mount Lassen. They get respectably big there, posing picturesquely over a trail or peering into their dancing and shapeshifting reflections in fast-moving Burney Creek; they also grow in the fashion that gave them their name, sprawling in a trappy tangle underfoot.  

Burney Falls is a most unlikely place: an oasis in the north taper of the Central Valley, a good place to repair to on a hot day. The temperature difference from the top of the trail to creek below is at least ten degrees Fahrenheit and feels like more. Hot and dry up there, cool and moist down here in the mist thrown off by the waterfall—the reverse of what one comes to expect after spending time on a mountain—and the “up there” is the normal surface of the surrounding landscape.  

A mossy Douglas-fir forest carved into the sagebrush desert isn’t the only odd feature of Burney Falls. The waterfall itself, a big roaring rainbowmaking vapor machine, is inhabited by black swifts.  

These little birds nest and rear their young in niches in the rock under the gravity curtain of the falls, flying through tons of pounding water many times every day, forcing their way by sheer speed and bluff through that seemingly impassable kinetic moat to feed their kids and maintain their nests.  

They’re being respectable and domestic as any suburban play-date organizers, but the effect as the groups roar off and return spiraling from their bug-gathering expeditions is of tiny little motorcycle gangs ripping circles overhead and yelling “Yeeee-hah!”  

In such engagingly paradoxical places grow the southeastern ambassadors of this mostly northern little tree. It’s most common along the coast here in its California province, in the rich understory of the big-tree (not to be confused with Big Tree, one of several confusing vernacular names for the Sierran Sequoiadendron giganteum) forests, the northernmost redwoods and Douglas-fir and true fir.  

We don’t have a lot of native maples in the West; offhand I can think of only four in Califirnia, and only two we see much in the wildlands here: bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, and boxelder, Acer negundo, which doesn’t look much like a maple until it grows the maple-nose seed structures called samaras.  

“Nose?” Snap one in half, split the seed and the resulting protuberant appliance will stick nicely to your nose for as long as you care to look silly. I don’t understand why the mythical Green Man doesn’t wear one. Symbolic wood-ha’nts ought not to be solemn. 

When it’s not sprawling over the ground and tripping hikers, vine maple stands up nicely as a multitrunked or single-trunked tree, its habit strongly resembling Japanese maple’s. In leaf, it is nearly identical to the Japanese native moon maple or full-moon maple. More confusion: Japanese maple, common in cultivation here and with dozens of cultivars, is Acer palmatum, while moon maple is Acer japonicum.  

Vine maple has those rounded, rickrack-bordered leaves like moon maple’s; I don’t trust myself to tell the two apart at a glance.  

Vine maple might have a more general inclination towards red than moon maple has; it certainly makes vine maple stand out in its native habitat. Its leaves are reddish to bronzed-gold in fall; red-tinged new foliage in spring; with red leaf pedicels and some reddish leaf-edges always. It’s paradoxically warm-looking in a cool green-shadowed forest.  

It’s more closely related to the Asian maples than to its North American neighbors. This sort of distributional oddity occurs in a good handful of other plant species like our redwoods who have a remnant living cousin in China, the dawn redwood, Metasequoia glyptostroboides. Follow the family trees of the magnolias and the rhododendrons for more examples of the surprised wrought by continental drift and eons of climate change. 

There are a couple of vine maples on the UC campus, passing for Japanese maples until you take a second look. The best place to see them en masse, though, is the Tilden Botanic Garden. In fact, that’s a good place to go get a taste of what the California landscape in its original state has to offer in this dusty, desiccated, drawn-out season. 



Photograph by Ron Sullivan. 

Vine maple leaves in Tilden Park's Botanic Garden, August 22, 2007.