While snowshoeing in Ricketts Glen State Park this past month, I had the pleasure of seeing several stands of our native Acer pensylvanicum. The conspicuous young red stems of this striped maple were electric against the white wonderland of the forest. True to the common name of striped maple or snakebark maple, white stripes ran the length of the young trunks making them very easy to identify.
With these attractive characteristics, a gardener might wonder why this plant is not found in nurseries and garden centers. A. pensylvanicum has proven to be useful for naturalizing but does not do well as a lawn specimen. This understory tree prefers shaded woods, well-drained, cool, and slightly-acidic soils. There are a few cultivars available to gardeners who would like to try this attractive tree.
The cultivar ‘Erythrocladum’ of Acer pensylvanicum can found at the Scott Arboretum in the Terry Shane Teaching Garden. This plant creates a striking display throughout the seasons with its leaves, stems, and bark. As found in the straight species, ‘Erythrocladum’ has white stripes but these stripes exist on coral-red stems. Young coral-red stems make an electric appearance in the winter after leaf drop. While in attractive yellow fall color, I have also noticed the young stems also appear more yellow.
While not a cultivar of A. pensylvanicum, another great snakebark maple on campus is Acer ‘White Tigress’. A cross between A. tegmentosum and A. davidii, ‘White Tigress’ has the white stripes of snakebark maples over a green bark. In the fall, the yellow fall color of the leaves compliments the green and white stripes of the bark. This cultivar is considered the most heat-tolerant snakebark. The 19-year-old specimen in the Hydrangea Collection creates a stunning show every fall.
Snakebark maples are not great trees for urban toughness. Be sure to protect them from lawnmowers and weed-eaters as their bark is thin and easily damaged. They are very attractive trees with their fall color, brilliant colored stems, and striped bark, but be sure to plant them in the appropriate location; moist, well-drained soils, and perhaps partial shade.