This is the tenth entry in my “Just One” series about native Pacific Northwest plants. Like other posts in the series, this one has a little science and a little poetry: science in the text and poetry in the images.
I became aware of Vine maples after I moved to a garden apartment in a Seattle suburb. The landscapers there used native plants and a small Vine maple grew below our third story windows. I watched the little tree evolve over the seasons, enjoying its lime-green leaves in spring, puzzling over patchy fall color changes and admiring the sinuous, bare branches in winter. I found more Vine maples growing as understory trees in a local park. One November I made a series of images of ghostly pale leaves lighting up the gloom of the park’s dense, evergreen forest. I miss them now. The soil here seems to be too dry for their comfort. But they’re not far away – Vine maples are plentiful in the wet forests of the Pacific northwest.
Contrary to its name, the Vine maple isn’t a vine and it isn’t the upright, lollipop-shaped tree we usually associate with the word ‘maple.’ This maple doesn’t get very tall. It often has multiple, slender trunks, or a single trunk that twists and turns, looking for more light. The branches can get very long and droopy, sometimes rooting if they touch the ground. Confronted with a thicket of them, it’s understandable how someone decided to call them Vine maples.
Maples have been with us for 60 million years, probably originating in eastern Asia, evolving over time into about 150 different species, all native to the Northern hemisphere. The Vine maple, Acer circinatum, ranges only from the southwest corner of British Columbia to northern California, from the coast to about 200 miles inland. A small territory. And it’s nearest relative? That would be the Full moon or Amu maple (Acer japonicum), native to Japan and southern Korea. Imagine a Japanese maple rather than a Sugar maple and you’re on the right track to picturing a Vine maple.
I’m a detail person, so the first thing I noticed about Vine maples was the attractive shape of their leaves: overall they’re generously round like little moons. Indentations lend a certain grace, not unlike on their Japanese maple cousins. There are usually 7-11 serrated lobes, each ending in a delicate point. The leaves are held flat to absorb light, as if a flock of paper-thin, green saucers has come to rest on thin, wavy branches, beseeching for light deep in the forest. The Latin name, Acre circinatum, tells us it’s a maple (Acer) with something circular going on (circinatum).
As you might guess, this small tree is not considered valuable to loggers. In fact, it’s deemed a nuisance because dense thickets of the shrubby trees can impede loggers’ progress toward their goal: the big trees. But I don’t have to tell you that no plant is useless. Besides the enjoyment humans get from Vine maples as forest and landscape trees, deer and elk browse the tender shoots and leaves. The Coast Salish people sometimes used Vine maple wood for bows or for fishing net frames; other tribes used it for snowshoes and cradle frames. Coastal aboriginal people boiled the bark of the roots to make a tea for colds or burned the wood to charcoal, mixed it with water, and drank it to combat dysentery and polio. A study published in 2000 determined that nutrient levels under Douglas fir trees (valuable for lumber) are higher when Vine maples are present as an understory tree, compared to stands without Vine maples. These trees feed the forest, the wildlife, and our souls.
Why should you care about Vine maples? No reason. If you don’t, that’s OK. The larger point here is that when we get to know our surroundings, when we are curious enough to look deeper and open enough to become companions with the beings we share space with here on earth, well, it’s a good thing.