Chinese Maple

A Few Facts About the Rare and Colorful Chinese Maple


The Chinese maple, Acer discolor, has a brief but rather interesting history. Because it is so colorful, it is often mistaken for a Japanese maple, but up close, the two species do not look much alike. Its history is a brief one only to the extent that this maple was unknown to the outside world until sometime in the 1960s, when a small grove was discovered in the Han River area of China. That grove has since disappeared, and it was feared for a time that the tree may have become extinct.


A Tree Threatened With Extinction in the Wild


Fortunately, two more groves of this maple have since been found. It does remain a threatened species however, since the populations in these groves are quite small, numbering in the hundreds. This maple will likely not face total extinction because over the years it has been propagated to the extent that it is now widely sold in nurseries. There is the possibility however that it could eventually become extinct in its native habitat.


Confused With the Japanese Maple, But Not At All the Same


The Japanese maple is widely grown throughout Japan, and it has been a presence in Western gardens for a good many years. The Chinese maple on the other hand has never been grown extensively throughout China, and is still not. Where it is found in the wild, it is most often found growing at higher elevations, often as high as 8,000 feet. There is some hope that the remaining native population can be preserved, since these trees are presently growing in a protected area. In fact, the area they are growing in is adjacent to another protected area, a panda preserve. Seeds are regularly being collected in efforts to preserve the species.


Its Leaves Turn Bright Red, But not Always


The Chinese maple is hardy in zones seven through nine. It is not a terribly large tree, typically growing to a height of around 35 feet. It prefers full sun, but will generally do well in partial shade. Most people who plant one or more of these trees will usually plant them in full sun, to take the best advantage of the brilliant fall colors when the leaves normally turn from green to bright red. In some instances, the leaves may turn yellow or orange instead of red, depending on the planting location and also on climatic conditions. This tree prefers a loamy soil that is either mildly acidic or mildly alkaline. It differs from the Japanese maple in this respect, in that the Japanese maple cannot tolerate an alkaline soil, or even a mildly alkaline soil.


The Leaves are Slightly Different From Most Maples


One way to identify the Chinese maple, in order to distinguish it from the Japanese maple, is to examine the leaves. The Japanese maple has deeply lobed leaves that often have a feathery-like appearance. The Chinese counterpart has leaves that are not deeply lobed at all, not nearly as much as is typical with the leaves of most species of maples.


This is an easy to care for tree once it has been established. For the first year or two it will need to be watered, without over watering it. Once its root system has become established, the tree can usually fend for itself. An exception would be that if there is a long hot dry spell during the summer months, the tree would profit from an occasional watering. Aside from removing any dead or diseased branches, this maple requires little in the way of pruning. Most owners prune away some of the interior branches during the first two or three winters. This improves the air circulation and usually adds to the appearance of the tree. For the most part, this maple requires no shaping.


An Easy Tree to Propagate


The Chinese maple can be propagated by several methods. It can be grown from seeds. The seeds should not be placed in the ground until after the last frost. Also the seeds should be allowed to dry while still on the tree before collecting them. Propagation can also be accomplished by herbaceous stem cuttings, woody stem cuttings, or softwood cuttings. Grafting is yet another possibility.


If you want to spend a little extra time and effort to help this maple through its first year or two, you’ll be more than amply rewarded. It makes a beautiful specimen tree, and because it is small to medium sized, there are usually several locations to choose among when planting one.


Perhaps it is because of its relative scarcity, but there is not a great deal of information in circulation about this maple. If you should find one at a nursery, which is becoming more and more possible with each passing year, don’t be surprised if the planting or transplanting information is rather brief and straightforward. Find a location, dig a hole, plant in a loamy soil, water, and lightly mulch. That’s about it. As rare as this tree is, or once was, it does not have to be treated as an exotic tree. It is for all practical purposes a beginning gardener’s tree.