I get to ride horseback through the woods with a friend almost every week. We often ride through groves of Vine Maples surrounded by Sword Ferns (Polystichum munitum) and tall Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) overhead. We see the woods change, week by week, throughout the year. In the spring , Vine Maple leaves unfold like fans and the small blooms emerge, intricate, yellow and red. By summer, the trees and undergrowth are thick with leaves and bright light. Even in autumn, the afternoon light – no longer sunny – filters through the Vine Maples’ arching boughs and still-green leaves. Right now, in winter, all the leaves are off the trees and you can see long distances into the forest and admire the shape of the trees. Lush chartreuse and gold mosses on the Vine Maple trunks accentuate the blue-green of their bark.
Vine Maples, beautiful forest understory trees, provide important layers of habitat needed to support bird life. The oldest Vine Maples often lean over nearly horizontal. If a branch gets bent to the ground it can take root and start a new tree, often with multiple stems . When I was a kid I played with my cousins on a jungle gym out in the woods – a grove of sideways-arching Vine Maples. We climbed on them like monkey bars.
Vine Maples do well even if they get a lot of summer sun, although in a blasting hot location (like the exposed south or west side of a building), their leaves will turn color early and burn around the edges. So it’s best to give them some shade; they can handle full shade. And the shade they cast is rejuvenating; sunlight glows green through the thin leaves. A summer rain under those leaves soothes the soul; once I almost bought a house because of the sound the rain was making on the Vine Maple leaves outside the kitchen window.
Seeds in the fall are winged “samaras.” They are a favorite of small mammals. Sometimes I can find a cache of empty seed pods where some little rodent has eaten the nutritious nuts. Vine Maples will really color up well if they have a lot of exposure in an open area. The reds are especially bright during a fall when there has been a long dry spell before the first frost.
Vine Maples are shapely small trees, averaging 20-25 feet tall. They can grow full and wide, with multiple trunks. But for a narrow place or to get the dramatic effect of branches arching overhead, start with a tree that has only one main stem. If you plant two asymmetrically on opposite sides of a wide pathway, their canopies will eventually intertwine. In our yard, Brian planted an Orange Trumpet Honeysuckle (Lonicera ciliosa) in the shade of a multi-trunked Vine Maple. As he intended, the Honeysuckle vine climbed the maple toward the light, up and out to the branch tips, where it bloomed profusely. It is a hummingbird magnet! Also co-existing nicely in the Vine Maple’s bright shade we have Sword Ferns, Largeflower Fairybells (Prosartes smithii), Douglas Iris (Iris douglasiana) and Western Meadowrue (Thalictrum occidentale).
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