Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database

Acer circinatum (Vine Maple)



   Plantae – Plants


   Tracheobionta – Vascular plants


   Spermatophyta – Seed plants


   Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants


   Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons






   Aceraceae – Maple family


   Acer L. – maple


   Acer circinatum Pursh – vine maple

NW native Vine Maple, a small deciduous tree, has some of the best fall colors of all natives. It's a tough little guy that does well as an understory beneath tall evergreens.

A quick grower to 10-15 feet, it has multiple trunks and spreads to 20' widths, much like a vine. It likes moisture but will thrive in drought after established as long as it has a little shade (does not enjoy intense heat). Blooms with white flowers in spring. A lovely addition to any landscape and provides local wildlife with food and nesting places.

A good choice for the artistic gardener, Vine Maple can be trained as a tree with single trunk, it's pliable branches can be bent to shapes of bonsai, trained along a fence, only your imagination sets a limit on ways to use this delightful native.


Acer circinatum is essential for native gardens. Found as an understory plant to tall evergreens, from southern BC to northern California and east to the Cascades, Vine Maple is hardy in USDA zones 7-8.

Every bit as decorative as Japanese maples, these trees have an added bonus of providing local wildlife with food. Vine Maples like moisture and but will tolerate summer drought once established. They will not thrive in intense heat.

Description:  Have you ever witnessed the Vine Maple’s fiery autumn display of scarlet and tangerine foliage splashing over the deep green of a Douglas Fir forest? If you have, you probably reached for your camera, trying to capture one of this maple’s most celebrated features.

In the shade of a dense tree canopy, Vine Maples grow into sinuous bodies of twisting branches that reach toward breaks in the overstory.

Growing until they are too heavy to stand upright any longer, the arcing branches stroke the forest floor then again begin to raise in search of the sun.

I recall Sunday afternoons in the autumn when my family would drive above the Detroit area where entire hillsides were covered in Vine Maple brambles re-populating clear-cuts. We always kept a sharp lookout for the deer that loved to take their afternoon naps within the protection of the Vine Maple.

In an open setting, the creeping shrub may also become a small tree with a squat trunk that reaches up to 25 feet in height although usually they stop at 10 - 15 feet.

Vine Maple bears serrated spherical leaves that are lobed 7 to 9 times and arranged oppositely along the stem. Another important distinguishing feature of this forest denizen is borne from its flowers. Fluttering by, propelled by the winds, are the long wings of its double samara. Notice how the wings are widely angled creating an alignment almost parallel with the ground.

This wonderful ornamental is native to the Pacific northwest and is a great choice for landscaping or native plant gardening. From radiant green leaves to purple and white flowers to its scarlet samaras, the brilliant displays of color delight the senses throughout its seasons.

To distinguish between Vine Maple and its close relative Douglas maple (Acer glabrum) count the lobes dividing the leaf margin, if the number is between 3 to 5 instead of 7 to 9 then you have a Douglas Maple. As well, the Douglas Maple has greenish-yellow flowers and samaras that are oriented in more of a “V” shape.

Natural Habitat and Range: From the canyon bottoms and talus slopes of the eastern Cascades to the rich forest understory of the western Cascades, from open alluvial terraces to clear-cuts and burn areas, Vine Maple persists in coniferous and hardwood forests from low to middle elevations. It may be found as far north as southern Alaska and as far south as northern California, and ranges from the eastern Cascades west to the Pacific coast.

Habit: Vine Maple has many lives. In open sunshine the plant becomes a small tree with several erect stems or it can blossom into a wild, bushy shrub. However, in the shade of the forest crown the species contorts and twists becoming a sprawling vine with a few long arching branches that patiently search for light.

A magical property allows this species to root itself into the earth where branches unite with the forest floor. In some cases colonies of vine maple grow into thick tangles, causing even the hardiest of cross country travelers to curse its obstacle course of branches; trappers referred to the vine as “devil wood.”

The bark is usually smooth, but is also finely fissured at times. New growth and branchlets are a soft green while older growth becomes reddish-brown. Another tip for identification is the species’ twigs which characteristically end in two buds.

Their low water requirements makes Vine Maple attractive in xeriscapes. The plant’s USDA hardiness zone rating ranges from 7 to 8. You may plant this species in the shade, but for more spectacular fall colors plant in a more open, sunny locale. This is one plant that can withstand the extremes of full sun. Vine Maple likes moist well-drained soil in a pH range of 5.5-7.5, but is adapted to many soil types including clay and sandy loams as well as rocky talus soil.

At left, leaves and flowers photo by Tony Perodeau. At right, flower close-up photo from Walter Siegmund

Uses of Plant: Native Americans used this plant to make bows, frames for fishing nets, snowshoes, and cradle frames. They burned it for firewood, and carved cooking tool, bowls and platters. They taught the early settlers to boil the bark to make a tea for colds. It's branches were useful for cradle swings and to make scoop nets to take salmon. Known by Native tribes as the "basket tree," they crafted beautiful and long-lasting baskets with the long straight stems.

Human consumption of the Vine Maple as food source is usually limited to emergency situations. The sap of all maples is edible, although the eastern maples have a superior taste--most of us are familiar with maple-flavored syrup. Young shoots may be eaten like asparagus either raw or steamed. However, the older leaves are poisonous to people. The inner bark of all maples may be eaten if one were to need some food to survive.

NOTE: Please use caution when preparing or eating any parts of a plant. Identification of the species and knowledge of a plant’s toxicity are both essential before using any plant species medicinally or otherwise. Please consult with a heath professional before attempting to treat any ailment.

Ornamental Values: This handsome species is desired for its dramatic colors and tolerance of shade and sun. An excellent ornamental, especially prized for outstanding fall color. Interesting enough to make a good specimen tree, they also do well as the understory to conifers much as they do in nature.

This long-lived species has a moderate growth rate, 1 to 2 feet per year, and an ability to re-sprout from its root crown when damaged. Well adapted to the home garden whether small or large. They can be pruned back to keep the size very small (some are even used for bonsai), or allowed to grow unfettered.

Native Plant Gardening/Wildlife Habitat: This native is found in many ecotypes and provides a bounty of edibles for wildlife. The seeds, buds and flowers are nutriment for song birds, game birds, and mammals. Deer and elk forage on the leaves and bark; elk continue feeding on the buds and bark in the barren winter. The simple flowers provide delectable nectar for bees and butterflies. The leaves are fodder for brown tissue moth and polyphemus moth larvae. Birds often gather Vine Maple’s leaves and stems for nesting materials.

In the wild, companion species found growing along with Vine Maple include Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata), Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis), Pacific Silver Fir (Abies amabilis), Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa), Sitka Alder (Alnus viridis ssp. sinuata), Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa), Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), Pacific Rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophyllum), Blue-leaved Huckleberry (Vaccinium  deliciosum), Bald Hip Rose (Rosa gymnocarpa), Sword Fern (Polystichum munitum), Oregon Grape (Berberis nervosa), Salal (Gautheria shalon), Foamflower (Tiarella trifoliata), Twinflower (Linnaea borealis), and Bear Grass (Xerophyllum tenax). Click on the plant names to see details of each plant.

Restoration and Mitigation Values: For restoration of moist drainages and steep slopes, Vine Maple is respected for its exceptional soil binding qualities. The species is often one of the early colonizers after disturbances such as clear cuts or fire and fares well on poor sites.

Propagation:  In landscapes, little seedlings with two leaves can be found around more mature trees. These can be potted and grown up quite easily. As with most young plants, they will need watering, but sparingly during their first summer. After they are planted out, they will only require water rarely when they are established.

Another good way to propagate this variety of maple is by layering. This is done by burying part of a live branch that is still attached to the tree.

In early spring, pick a branch of the parent tree that reaches the ground and has a generous foot or two to spare. Gently bend the branch into a "U" shape (it should crack slightly--if it does not, scrape the bottom side with a knife).

Stake down this branch so that the bottom of the "U" where the crack or nick is and bury that part in 3-6 inches of soil. You can use rooting hormone on the crack if desired. It's not usually necessary. Leave this portion of the branch buried until rooted.

If started in early spring, you should have good roots by late summer. At that point, the new plant can be severed from the parent and planted out into the landscape. Layering is easy to do and has an excellent chance of success.

Seeds are difficult to grow, but it is possible to get new plants in this fashion. The seeds should be collected in September to October when they are drying out and turning brown. Sow them immediately, either where you want the new plants or in pots. Again, water them sparingly for the first summer and then only as absolutely necessary.

Another alternative for propagation is salvaging seedlings around the parent tree, but these must be potted without delay.

Historical and Special interest: In British Columbia, there is a Vine Maple Research project which is a community project between Forest Renewal B.C. and the Department of Geography at Simon Fraser University.

Currently, this research is attempting to determine what factors determine the natural distribution of vine maple within old-growth forest stands and on the cycle of nutrients and conifer growth. Members of the project plan to make their findings available to forest managers to assist them in their jobs of preserving northwest forest lands.

Previously thought to be detrimental in that they overwhelmed conifer seedlings, this research is weighing factors present in litter fall, the forest floor, mineral soil and Douglas Fir foliage in 27 pairs of test plots, half with Vine Maple and half without. They have found that, contrary to previous belief, the nutrient content beneath the Vine Maple was considerably greater than those plots without. Besides the natural benefit of adding diversity in the plant mix, the Vine Maple is efficient in recycling nutrients which adds to the nutritional status of all it's neighbors.

Origin of botanical name, original discovery info, etc.: It's not just a tree! Vine Maple is a small town in western Oregon just off Highway 26, thought to be named after a post office which operated in the Northwest for about 11 years from May 1891 to May 1902 and was called Vinemaple. This post office is said to have drawn it's name from our friend, the Acer circinatum which is abundant in the area. The town is located along the Nehalem River between Elsie and Jewell, it is also the home of the Vine Maple RFD.

For a short comparison of northwest native maples, click here.


Photo credits: above left, Corey Lewellen; above right, Walter Siegmund

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Many thanks to the following references for their invaluable information:

Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar and Mackinnon (1994)

Western Forests, A National Audubon Society Nature Guide by Stephen Whitney (1985)

Flora of the Pacific Northwest by C.L. Hitchcock & A. Cronquist, University of Washington Press (1973)

Trees, Shrubs, & Flowers to know in British Columbia & Washington by C.P. Lyons, Lone Pine Publishing (1995)

Collecting, Processing and Germinating Seeds of Wildland Plants by J.A. Young and C.G. Young, Timberland Press (1986)

Trees to know in Oregon by Oregon State University Extension Service & Oregon Department of Forestry, Extension Circular 1450 (1995)

The Reference Manual of Woody Plant Propagation from seed to tissue culture by M.A. Dirr and C.W. Heuser, Jr., Varsity Press, Inc. (1987)

Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest by Russell Link, University of Washington Press & Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (1999)

Naturescaping, A Landscaping Partnership with Nature by Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (2001)

US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (2002, February) http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/

Gardenbed.com http://www.gardenbed.com

BCAdventure.com http://www.bcadventure.com/adventure/wilderness/forest/

Backcountry Rangers, Edible Sierra Nevada Plants Guide http://www.backcountryrangers.com/

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