UNSUNG AND PERHAPS underappreciated, Flame Amur maple (Acer ginnala ‘Flame’) is a good fit for the urban landscape, provided you like your plantings on the textural, dare I say shaggy, side. Which isn’t to say this tree doesn’t have flashes of landscape brilliance.
“The species is definitely tough,” says Douglas Justice, associate director of Horticulture and Collections at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden and a longtime member of the Trees and Conifer selection committee for Great Plant Picks. “Amur maple is a good performer in many parts of North America, and some trees in the Pacific Northwest might even be considered handsome.” Some people might call that faint praise, but Justice goes on to say, “Personally, I wouldn’t want to be without it.”
Amur maple is a small twiggy tree with a shrubby low-branching habit, although you’ll find most nursery trees trained as a single trunk. In spring, glossy, deeply lobed small leaves emerge bright green, accompanied by clusters of fragrant, creamy flowers. Blossoms are followed by a heavily set crop of samaras, those winged seed structures we used to call “helicopters” when we were kids. That’s when things start getting textural.
The cultivar ‘Flame’ is distinguished for its exceptional fall foliage and a slightly more refined form. Come midsummer, the samaras flush pink, gradually ripening to deep red as the foliage warms up to a fiery, if brief, autumnal display. The copiously produced (and browning) samaras persist into winter — see “texture” above.
Justice characterizes Amur maple as “a tough sell” from the retail consumer’s point of view. “People see it as scruffy and stunted and not very attractive, despite the week or so of autumn color, or the few weeks when the cherry-red samaras are showing,” he says. “Amur maple has its moments, but I think we are spoiled for more conventionally attractive trees in this part of the world.”
I love an underdog, and context is everything, especially when it comes to creating a design narrative. Amur maple might not be an obvious choice for a formal setting — although I can picture a row of tidy evergreens providing a striking backdrop for its seasonal display. However, the tree is well-suited to a naturalistic landscape. Multitrunk forms are good in a mixed hedgerow, as an informal hedge or even in a pot. Justice grows his tree in a mixed container on the patio and cuts it back “mercilessly.”
The Seattle Department of Transportation Approved Street Tree List characterizes Flame Amur maple as a small tree (25 feet tall by 20 feet wide) that’s suitable for planting under wires, making it a good candidate for curbside locations. Plant in full to partial sun, although fall color is more intense with more sun. Provide well-drained garden soil. The tree isn’t fussy about fertility, and it tolerates urban conditions, including pollution and drought. In addition to its admittedly informal aesthetic charms, functionally, Amur maple makes a good windbreak, helps control soil erosion and provides valuable habitat for wildlife.
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