Love Letter to Paperbark Maple

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We here at OSU Extension are supposed to present unbiased information… but this tree… THIS TREE… I’m a little smitten.


PAPER… BARK… MAPLE. Acer griseum is a gorgeous specimen for the landscape. Michael Dirr in his ultimate guide, Manual of Woody Landscape Plants uses terms like handsome, splendid, striking, and "unmatched dignity” to describe A.griseum. Dirr states, “verbal descriptions cannot do [it] justice…” (p.25). Well, I will certainly try.


This past fall, while touring the recently accredited (2021) Arboretum at Spring Grove Cemetery of Medina, Ohio, I ran into a gorgeous example of the Paperbark Maple. Growing up in a sea of red, sugar, and silver maple here in NE Ohio, I had never seen a PB Maple in my neighborhood. But here one stands, right down the street from the Medina Extension office, and I have fallen head over heels.  Let me introduce you.  


multi-trunk paperbark maple tree in sun


Paperbark Maple is a specimen tree. It has a lot going for it to make it the perfect tree for near a patio or framed by a window. It is a smaller understory tree and has four seasons of interest to keep you enthralled. Unique leaves, beautiful fall color, lingering seeds, and of course, the real pièce de résistance, the exfoliating BARK. 


In species which exhibit this characteristic, exfoliating bark is a natural process whereby the outermost layer of bark peels or sheds, often revealing variations of color underneath. Sycamore, river birch, kousa dogwood, and dawn redwood are just a few other species that exhibit exfoliating bark. PB maple bark is rich with warm tones of brown, reds, russet, and cinnamon. An added bonus for PB maple is that the bark clings to the trunk. This provides depth and texture without making an awful mess under the tree.  


paperbark maples have extraordinary exfoliating bark in colors of brown russet red and cinnamon

the bark can exfoliate showing different color variations


Just LOOK at that curly swirl of bark... 


closer look at exfoliating bark


The bark begins exfoliating around year 2 and stays attached to the trunk in curls. NOTE TO LANDSCAPERS! If you are installing an exfoliating specimen, please give your clients the heads up about its shaggy characteristics! I've had concerned calls into the Extension Office from worried homeowners who believed their tree was about to keel over, when in fact, it was just the bark maturing enough to begin peeling. 


Quick Facts

  • Opposite leaf/branch arrangement
  • Trifoliate leaves, bronze to red fall colors but holds green late into the fall season
  • Seeds persist on branches into winter
  • Exfoliating Bark in brown, red, cinnamon tones
  • 20-30 foot height range. Oval to round canopy shape.
  • Zone 5-7 hardiness
  • Tolerates CLAY Soils! pH adaptable
  • Likes well-drained soils, cannot tolerate drought
  • Full sun to some shade
  • No serious diseases or pests
  • Considered easy to grow and low maintenance


IS it a maple?


Paperbark maple can trick you. The leaves are trifoliate with toothed leaflets which do not take on the stereotypical maple leaf shape. 


close up of the paperbark maples trifoliate compound leaves




But looking at the seeds, or samaras, and you can see the familiar “helicopter” seed shape. Note the opposite leaf arrangement. Both classic maple indicators.




seeds of the paperbark maple taken november 5 2021


paperbark maple buds look bristly



Other Features!


The petioles are distinctly pubescent as you see in the photo above. Even the buds look a little bristly, hairy, or exfoliated themselves! The underside of the leaf carries a blue-gray hue, giving rise to its name griseum which in latin means gray.   This is a real all-season tree. In fall the leaf color can become strikingly red, ranging from bronze-green to orangish and bright red. Be aware; however, it can hold onto its green long into the fall. The above photos were all taken on November 5, 2021... and the canopy was still full and green while other trees around had already dropped. But if you hold firm... just look at the reward. Bold red fall color! 



paperbark maple gets extraordinary red fall foliage.  


And let's not forget WINTER INTEREST. As I've been writing this up, I noted I had not gotten a photo of Paperbark Maple in the snow. Lo and behold, we had over a foot of snow dropped on us this week. Lucky me!  



Paperbark maple is a feature tree that stands out against snow.



What I've tried (and probably failed) to capture below is how A. griseum's pops in the winter landscape. The red tones of the bark stands out among all the gray of other trees, the snow, and even the headstones here. Driving around the snow covered arboretum/cemetery it was fairly easy to find again.



In winter, tree bark is often muted and gray, but the red tones of paperbark maple stand out against all that gloomy gray.

paperbark maple bark stands out against the white of snow



Final notes...

A. griseum is non-native, but its slow-growth and difficulty of propagation from seed mean the risk of an escapee is low. It is not considered invasive. The Missouri Botanical Garden states that 95% of its seeds are found to be inviable (MBG, 2022). This difficulty in propagation may also mean it is harder to find for purchase. There are a few varieties such as 'Fireburst' as well as some hybrids of A. griseum x maximowiczian, 'Cinnamon Flake' and 'Gingerbread,' in case you're searching for one for your own landscape.  It will definitely be my next tree. As Dirr said, "No finer tree can be recommended." So, who has it for sale!??




Dirr, M. (2009). Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation, and Uses. Sixth Edition. Stiples Publishing LLC.