Our national flag says it all – the bright red maple leaf a symbol of the true north strong and free
Or, more correctly, the true north with a short growing season and deciduous trees that drop their leaves! Before the leaves drop, they turn all manner of hue from brown to bright reds and oranges. The consummate colour changers are the maples, as those of us who have seen the eastern fall know perfectly well. Yet our three western maples, vine maple (Acer circinatum), big-leaf maple (A. macrophyllum) and Douglas maple (A. glabrum), can put on a respectable display, too. The showiest of the three is the vine maple. Vine maple has never made up its mind whether it is a tree or shrub. Generally it rises on several stout stems, a shrub-like trait, but those trunks can reach up to 10 metres tall. Sometimes trunks sprawl upon the ground stretching six to 10 metres. This lazy habit reputedly is responsible for the common name. Apparently the coureurs de bois of historic times cursed the tree with the name bois du diable (wood of the devil) for its habit of tripping them as they balanced their heavy loads on portages.
The stems or trunks range from reddish-green to grey, with older trunks marked by shallow seams. Widely spaced branches are arranged in tiers or levels as you might see in some dogwoods (Cornus species). Exquisitely formed leaves adorn the branches. Each lobed leaf bears seven to nine points in a form similar to that of many Japanese maple varieties. Leaves range from scarcely five centimetres across to 20 centimetres wide. The lowest lobes of the leaf, near the stalk, are the smallest and those toward the tip the largest. Their texture is somewhat thin and flimsy. The leaves open folded and pleated, then transform into a fine yellow-green canopy. By early fall the first hints of the spectacular display begin to appear. Yellow, orange or red shades merge with green until, if the weather has been cooperative, a colourful mantle clothes the woody frame. Bright colouring develops particularly well in regions where the fall is cool and crisp, such as the mid slopes of the Cascade Mountains. On several October forays into the B.C. Interior, I have been surprised by the bright colours that unexpectedly appear among the dark, brooding conifers of the upper Fraser Valley. Even in the heart of mild Victoria, the planted vine maples often put on a splendid autumn show. Pretty blooms emerge in early April before the leaves open fully. Reddish bud scales frame wine-coloured sepals and white petals. By June, sparse clusters of paired red maple keys dangle from the branches preparing to twirl earthward in the fall. In nature, vine maples inhabit open conifer woodlands and openings of the northwest coast of North America from southwest British Columbia to California. The species grows best in our province within the Fraser Lowland, on adjacent slopes and up the Fraser Canyon. Scattered stands inhabit southern Vancouver Island. Vine maple makes an outstanding native shrub for the garden, exhibiting attractive texture and form throughout the year, in addition to superb fall colour. Nurseries and garden centres can usually obtain the plant for you. It can be raised from seed planted in the fall and left to germinate over the winter. Branches can be bent to the ground, buried and layered to produce new plants. Avoid digging shrubs from the wild unless they are doomed to destruction. Large plants are best left in their natural home and often perish following transplant. The good news is that vine maples grow well outside the climate of their natural range, being hardy to Zone 5. However, they abhor hot, dry conditions, preferring the company of tall trees and moist soils. Accordingly they are well suited to coastal gardens, thriving even in downtown Victoria in the Native Plant Garden of the Royal B.C. Museum. Try planting one in a back corner of your lot to establish a cool, wild getaway for native birds. The accommodating and shady shelter also welcomes woodland ground dwellers such as western trillium (Trillium ovatum) and false lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum dilatatum). To get the most brilliant fall display, keep the plants in the open, rather than under the shade of other trees. Despite its tendency to warp, the wood of vine maple found wide use by First Nations peoples for implements such as baskets, fish traps, knitting needles, tongs and spoons. The stems were also fashioned into bows and arrows. Charcoal mixed with oil served as a black paint. Early European settlers fashioned the wood into tool handles and wagon hardware. So do your patriotic duty and find a niche for our native vine maple – you’ll be richly rewarded by an unforgettable display of fall colour. An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.