If you ask a hundred plant geeks like me to name their top ten favorite, medium-sized deciduous trees, I'll bet paperbark maple (Acer griseum) would make everyone's list! While it's a bit difficult to see what makes this tree so special in the picture at right, which is of a cluster of three paperbark maples at the Cornell Plantations in Ithaca, New York, look at the picture below, at left, and I think you'll understand?
In my opinion, there is no other tree adapted to conditions found across almost all of Central New York that has bark as stunning as this tree! Oh sure, the bark of river birch is certainly nice, as is that of Stewartia, Parrotia and Chinese Elm (don't worry, I'll be adding these trees to my list of recommended plants as time permits). However, even as this tree ages (the oldest specimens in the United States turned 100 in the fall of 2007 at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston), the bark retains extraordinary character and color, below right.
Though not as common as the noxious `Crimson King' Norway maple, both single stemmed and multiple-stemmed forms of paperbark maple can be found at many local garden centers. In fact, several Central New York production nurseries have grown this tree for many years - often in fields completely exposed to harsh, sweeping winter winds.
The reason this tree tree isn't more common in Central New York landscapes is that it's slow-growing. Even under ideal conditions, it's rare for this tree to grow more than six or eight inches a year, to a mature size of thirty to fifty feet tall and thirty to forty feet wide after a hundred years.
This means that relatively few nurseries are going to invest the ten to fifteen years it takes to grow this tree to a good size - and when they do, they're going to charge top dollar. A top-sized (eight to ten foot tall) B&B (balled and burlapped) specimen will, therefore, likely cost more than $500.00, installed!
In addition to its beautiful bark, paperbark maple features soft-textured, trifoliate (three leaflet) leaves that are tinged just slightly purplish as they emerge in May. During the summer the leaves are a unique bluish green, which then turn a very good, rich red in October.
In summary, in all but wet soils, paperbark maple is an absolutely outstanding medium-sized, pest-resistant tree for almost every Central New York landscape!