There are a handful of maples that garner most of the gardening world’s attention – Japanese maples (Acer palmatum), red & sugar (A. rubrum, A. saccharum), Norway (A. platanoides) and a smattering of others. While these are all excellent garden plants and you would be hard-pressed to find many maples that aren’t beautiful, it seems that the painted maple (Acer pictum) often is over-looked.
Painted maple ranges across a wide swath of eastern temperate Asia from Siberia through Mongolia and Korea into China and along much of the Japanese archipelago. It was first described in western literature by the Swedish botanist Karl von Thunberg in 1784 but was widely known as Acer mono after it was introduced to the west in the 1880’s. It’s name continues to cause confusion with some authorities using A. pictum to cover the entire species while other botanists break it down into several subspecies including A. pictum subsp. mono.
By any name, it makes a wonderful small to medium-sized tree to about 40′ tall, ideal for suburban landscapes looking for a shade tree in scale with today’s smaller lot sizes. Since it ranges over such a wide area, there is considerable variation in foliage but the typical forms found in cultivation have 5-7 lobes which usually have entire or smooth margins. The lobes are not deeply incised and often form broad triangles. Fall color is usually a rich, buttery yellow and the smooth bark found on most varieties is quite attractive.
The Japanese have selected several variegated forms which can be exquisite additions to the garden. My favorite, ‘Naguri Nishiki’ is heavily speckled with a dusting of white spots to the point where it is more white than green. Another unusual form, sometimes known as the bat wing maple but more correctly as ‘Usugumo’, is also stippled with white but what sets it apart from other maples is the tissue between the veins. It looks almost like umbrella fabric stretched between ribs of the umbrella (or like a bat wing I suppose). It always elicits comment and discussion. A third variegated form, ‘Tokiwa Nishiki’ has broad sections of its leaves sectored and splashed with white often with entire leaves lacking any green coloration. I imagine it requires some selective pruning of reversions but it is widely used in Japanese landscapes.
Painted maples are easy in the landscape requiring a loose, well-drained soil. Variegated forms may need some afternoon shade in hot climates and plants will appreciate supplemental water in dry spots especially while establishing. In Japan I have seen various selections kept small through regular root and branch pruning in order to fit in smaller landscapes or large containers.
Follow me at
@jcramark because life is too short for boring plants.
Check out all the happenings, see more images, and learn more at the JC Raulston Arboretum where we are Planting a Better World.