LOOKING TO SQUEEZE the last bit of warmth out of the shifting season? I suggest you head to Washington Park Arboretum, where even gray days glow with a fiery intensity beneath a canopy of fall foliage in flaming shades of red, orange and gold.
The Arboretum’s newly christened Daniel J. Hinkley Asian Maple collection is an arboreal treasure. A backdrop of dark green conifers in the woodland garden intensifies the experience as you stroll through the immersive environment on needle-cushioned trails and well-marked pathways.
Hinkley moved to Seattle in the early 1980s, when, along with his dog Emerson, he lived in the Arboretum’s charming stone cottage while he pursued graduate work in horticulture at the University of Washington, focusing his thesis on the genus Acer, or maples. “Thus began my lifelong love affair with what I still consider to be among the aristocrats of the botanical world,” he says.
Thanks in part to Hinkley’s work, the Arboretum’s maple collection is ranked among the top three in the nation. “It’s one of our core collections and is recognized as a National Collection by the American Public Garden Association,” says Ray Larson, curator of Living Collections for the University of Washington’s Botanic Garden. “We have about 80 Acer species, of which around 56 are from Asia.”
Hinkley’s affection for the Arboretum and his seminal exposure to what he describes as “a mind-bending collection of woody plants unparalleled by any other arboretum in North America” endures. Today, this local horticultural hero and world-renowned botanical explorer generously shares his collections with the Arboretum.
“Through my travels to China, Taiwan, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Sikkim, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, I came to realize not only the breadth of variation within the genus, but the degree of potential these species have for ornamental purposes in our benign Pacific Northwest climate,” he says.
And while autumn is definitely a highlight, foliage is far from the only attraction offered by this family of ornamental trees. Acer tegmentosum ‘Joe Witt’, a Manchurian snakebark maple with exceptionally bright white striped bark, was selected from the Arboretum’s collection and named by Hinkley for the curator in place when he began his studies.
The chestnut-brown peeling foliage of the paperbark maple, Acer griseum, is attractive throughout the year but especially so when backlit by low light in the winter garden; creamy white samaras, or winged seed structures, further add to its charms.
The fernleaf full moon maple, Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, is a gem in all seasons. Bright green, deeply dissected leaves show off tiny red flowers in spring, echoed by a crimson explosion of fall foliage color.
As understory trees, Asian maples are as well-suited to our climate — moderate and mild — as they are to use in the home landscape, being relatively small in stature and tolerant of partial shade. Whether you’re looking for a dose of nature or scoping out the collection before heading to the nursery, check out the Arboretum’s popular Lookout Trail, a 1-mile loop from the woodland garden to the lookout gazebo and back.
Parking is available in the lot behind the Graham Visitors Center, where you can pick up a trail map. Wear a sweater, and walk briskly as you savor the season. I promise you’ll be warm.