The vine maple is a beautiful species of maple that is well known for its stunning fall color and smaller stature. Although not a true vine, the growth habit resembles a vine as this tree is often multi-stemmed rather than single trunked and grows outward and up in a vine-like fashion.
Native to Western North America, the vine maple is known botanically as Acer circinatum. This tree is found growing in a variety of different habitats, which include forests, disturbed and opened fields, coastal woodlands and alongside streams, rivers and lakes. Vine maples are most often found growing under large stands of conifers such as Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) or mixed with other deciduous trees and shrubs such as Red Alder (Alnus rubra), Big Leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) and Indian plum (Oemlaria cerasiformis).
Vine maples have palmate shaped leaves with seven to nine lobes on each leaf and are similar in appearance to the Japanese Full Moon maple (Acer shirasawanum). In the spring, the leaves emerge as chartreuse and then mature to a medium green color. In the fall, the leaves change to dramatic tones of red, orange and gold. The bark of the vine maple is smooth and grayish brown on mature trees and can be bright green or reddish on young trees. The mature size of vine maples is highly variable as it is determined by the environment in which they are growing. Vine maples growing in shaded woods can grow up to 25 feet and 12 to 20 feet wide and have a very open and vine-like habit while those growing in full sun tend to be shorter and denser and much more shrub-like in form. The flowers of the vine maple are formed in small red clusters in mid to late spring and contrast beautifully with the green leaves. Fruits develop during the summer months into the typical maple two-seeded winged formation known as a samara. The samaras are also very attractive as they grow in clusters of bright red underneath the leaves. The samaras mature to a medium brown in later summer and twirl to the ground in the fall.
Vine maples are an important food and refuge plant for wildlife. The shoots and leaves are eaten by elk and deer, while the seeds are consumed by birds and small mammals. A grouping of vine maples creates a network of intertwining branches that can serve as nesting locations for birds or as an escape from larger predators and birds of prey. The native peoples of the Western United States also used the branches and stems of the vine maple to make a variety of equipment and tools such as fishing dip nets, bowls and spoons, snow shoe frames and baskets.
The vine maple is not only beautiful in its native habitat but can also be grown as an ornamental in gardens and landscapes. When planted with other natives or with other ornamental plants, the vine maple adds texture and seasonal interest to any situation.