On these cool mornings, nothing beats a stack of warm pancakes, smothered in pure maple syrup, to chase the chill out of our bones. We have the sugar maple, Acer saccharum, to thank for that wonderful syrup. Sugar maples are quite common in the Northeast, but they are not as heat tolerant as many other maples and therefore, are not often seen in the South. While we don't have sugar maples to provide us with syrup or the vibrant fall color that sugar maples are famous for, we do have the whitebark maple, Acer leucoderme. Leucoderme means 'pale skin' which is appropriate because the bark is pale gray or chalky white on the upper part of the tree.
Whitebark maple is a close relative of sugar maple. It brings talents similar to those of its northern cousin to the landscape yet it thrives in our warm climate. Both maples have oval to rounded crowns that open as they mature but whitebark maple is a more petite version of sugar maple. It reaches a mature height of 25' to 30' as opposed to the 50' to 70' of height that mature sugar maples can attain. Whitebark maple's leaves are also smaller in size. In the fall, however, whitebark maple is nothing less than the equal of its larger Yankee relative. Fall color is strikingly brilliant, ranging from bright yellow-orange to cardinal crimson.
Whitebark maple is a native that grows as an understory tree (like dogwoods and redbuds) in well-drained, upland woods throughout the Piedmont and into the mountains. Whitebark maples are the pools and flashes of vivid color in the woods of early fall and no other tree can rival their showiness at that time of year.
Whitebark maples prefer well drained sites and will tolerate dry areas if given regular moisture. They are essentially free of insects and diseases and can be grown in a range of light conditions from full sun to heavy shade. Full sun is necessary to give the best fall color, however. This tree can be grown successfully throughout North Carolina from central to mountain areas. Whitebark maple makes a lovely, multi-stemmed lawn or shade tree. It is especially useful for residential landscapes in our area because of its relatively small stature and good heat tolerance. While not common in most garden centers, it is well worth seeking from native plant specialty nurseries to add to our gardens.
To propagate whitebark maple yourself, collect seed from wild trees in the fall and sow the seed in soil outside. Seedlings will germinate and grow the following spring. Allow them to develop in your seedling site for one year and then transplant the best year-old plants to their permanent sites.
Whitebark maple, planted as a single specimen or in a small grouping, will give dramatic color to the landscape. A walk in your Autumn garden will bring you to the stage of nature's grandest theater. With whitebark maple as the star of the company, the performance will be spellbinding!