Fair or not, we’re not really known for our native maple trees here in the Pacific Northwest. And while we can’t compete with the fall color spectacle of New England’s sprawling maple forests, our trio of native maples have (arguably) a lot more personality!
For example, our massive Bigleaf Maple is the largest maple species in the world, dwarfing anything found in New England forests in scale and grandeur. Likewise, the diminutive Vine Maple is prized as an ornamental for its graceful beauty and dependable fall color. Lesser known is our Douglas Maple, a close cousin of the Vine Maple, but with a personality all its own.
This article is brief introduction to our native maples, and tips for identifying them on the trail next time you’re out exploring our Mount Hood and the Columbia River Gorge.
Bigleaf Maple (Acer macroplyllum)
Bigleaf Maple can grow to 100 feet tall and 50 feet wide, towering over most other broadleaf trees in Northwest forests. These are high-octane maples: young trees can grow 5-6 feet per year, and stumps from cut or fallen trees typically sprout dozens of new shoots that often grow to become impressive, multi-stemmed trees.
As their name suggests, Bigleaf Maple have leaves that can grow to as much as 12” across, and are commonly up to 8” wide. If you have young kids, you’ve undoubtedly brought them home by the handful as souvenirs, as their sheer size is irresistible to young hikers.
In spring, Bigleaf Maple are covered with clusters of yellow-green blossoms that mature to become fuzzy “samaras”, the familiar winged seeds that float through the air when they ripen, like tiny helicopters. In fall, their leaves turn to bright yellow and light orange, depending on exposure. Their bark is rough and becomes deeply furrowed with age.
Bigleaf Maple like moist soils with good drainage, so you’ll find them along canyon floors and lower-elevation mountain slopes from the Cascades west to the Pacific. However, you can sometimes spot them in the arid eastern end of the Columbia Gorge, growing along the shady north side of cliffs or in slot canyons protected from the harsh desert climate.
In their preferred west side rainforests, mature Bigleaf Maple are usually draped with a thick layer of moss, which in turn creates the perfect habitat for Licorice Fern (Polypodium glycyrrhiza), a species that gets its name from the licorice-flavored rhizomes it uses to ramble over rocks and up mossy tree trunks.
Bigleaf Maple aren’t commonly planted as urban trees, in part because of their ultimate size and huge root systems can overwhelm a small garden and lift patios and sidewalks. But you can find them in many urban parks where they have more room to spread out. Though their main commercial value comes as firewood, woodworkers also value burled wood from mature maples.
The largest Bigleaf Maple in the world stood near the elk refuge at Jewell, Oregon until just a few years ago. This massive tree was estimated to be 200 years old with a trunk measured at 12 feet in diameter! A Pacific storm in March 2011 toppled this gnarled patriarch. Another giant in Marion County has since assumed the title of largest in the world.
Vine Maple (Acer circinatum)
Vine Maple is easy to love. These graceful little trees are as tough as they are adaptable, happily growing as a sprawling “vine” in the shade of deep forests and as a dense, stocky shrub in full sun. In Cascade rainforest environments, Vine Maple can dominate the understory, forming an impressive thicket for off-trail explorers to navigate.
These little trees rarely exceed 20 feet in height, and usually form multiple sprawling trunks as they mature. Their leaves are small – just 2-4” in diameter, with 5-9 lobes (most often 7 lobes).
In fall, forest-dwelling Vine Maple take on a bright yellow color, while those growing in full sun take on dazzling shades of crimson and orange.
Like their Bigleaf cousins, Vine Maple reproduce with winged samaras, though in their deep forest habitat, they usually spread by simply sprawling and rooting where their contorted stems touch the ground. Their bark is bright green in shade and tan or yellow-green in full sun.
Vine Maple have roughly the same range in the Pacific Northwest as Bigleaf Maple, favoring moist mountain canyons and slopes. This puts Vine Maple square in the path of industrial logging, but if there is a tree that can cope with the timber industry, this is it.
Vine Maple not only survive clear cutting operations, they often survive the destructive mass herbicide treatments still used by the timber industry to destroy all native vegetation prior to planting a monoculture conifer seedlings on logged-off land.
Vine Maple are a perfect native species for urban gardens in the Pacific Northwest, thriving on neglect and adaptable to sun or shade. As a result, they are readily available in commercial nurseries, but you can also collect them from most public lands for non-commercial use with a permit. The best time to dig is early spring, before buds break, so it pays to learn how to identify them by their stems before you dig.
Douglas Maple (Acer glabrum)
The least known of the Northwest maples, the Douglas Maple (sometimes called the Rocky Mountain Maple) is quite similar to the Vine Maple. While the two share the same range from the Cascades west to the Pacific, Douglas Maple is more likely to inhabit drier sites on mountain slopes and talus margins. Its range also extends to the Blue Mountains and Northern Rockies.
Douglas Maple are more upright in form than Vine Maple, growing to 20 feet in a spreading vase shape. Their leaves are small, just 2-5” wide with 3 lobes, and noticeably serrated compared to Vine Maple. These are key features in distinguishing the two, as these species often grow right next to each other in their native habitat. Douglas Maple bark is also like Vine Maple, light green becoming tan as trees age.
Like its maple cousins, the Douglas Maple also reproduces with winged samaras. In fall, their leaves take on brilliant shades of yellow, red and orange that rival Vine Maple for showiness.
Though uncommon as a urban tree, Douglas Maple are just as adaptable as Vine Maple to city gardens. Because they are rarely found in commercial nurseries, collecting them from public lands with a permit is the best option.
Where to See Them?
You can see magnificent Bigleaf Maple stands in the Columbia Gorge along most of the popular streamside trails, though some of the best can be found along the Latourell Falls loop trail and the popular Eagle Creek trail. The loop trail at Silver Creek State Park near Silverton is also famous for its Bigleaf Maple stands and impressive shows of fall color.
Vine Maple can be seen on most any trail in the Gorge or on Mount Hood, but for fall color, it’s hard to beat the view of Mount Hood from the Lost Lake loop trail, framed with brilliant Vine Maple. The Ramona Falls loop on the west side of Mount Hood has beautiful stream scenes frames by Vine Maple.
Though its range extends to the Pacific, Douglas Maple is most prominent on the east slopes of the Cascades, including most trails in the eastern Columbia Gorge from Starvation Creek to Mosier. The Tamanawas Falls trail at the eastern foot of Mount Hood has especially abundant stands, with excellent fall color shows in early October.
For a trifecta hike that includes all three of our native maple species along a single trail, try the Elowah Falls hike, where magnificent Bigleaf Maple line McCord Creek, Vine Maple fill the understory under tall conifer stands and Douglas Maple grow from the rocky slopes high above Elowah Falls.
All of these hikes can be found in the Oregon Hikers Field Guide. Enjoy!