The whole idea of winter gardening tends to rely a great deal too much on picturesque dustings of snow and delicate traceries of frost clinging to the remains of the ornamental grasses. The winter climate in most of North America being rather short on dustings and traceries, it might be prudent to look for other ways keep the garden going once we pass November. One plant that brilliantly relieves the visual tedium of midwinter is a selection of the moosewood maple, a species native to the northeastern quarter of the United States and southeastern Canada. Now, the ordinary form of the moosewood maple is handsome enough, for it is the sole North American representative (the others are all Asian) of the so-called snakebark maples, whose trunks display whitish, lengthwise striations. But Acer pensylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum’ takes the species to a whole new exalted level, because once the weather turns cold, the branches turn a glowing salmon red—like A. palmatum ‘Sangokaku’ (if you know that plant), only better.
In the wild, A. pensylvanicum is an understory plant that likes to grow on shady, northern slopes at elevations from 2,000 to 4,000 feet, which tells you what it needs in the garden: partial shade, coolness, regular moisture, and well-drained, humusy, slightly acidic soil. The chief difference between the plain species and ‘Erythrocladum’ is that the former is hardy to USDA Zone 3, while you’re pushing your luck if you try to grow ‘Erythrocladum’ in areas colder than Zone 5.
Companion planting isn’t much of an issue in midwinter, but ‘Erythrocladum’ retains its bright color well into early spring, when it pairs well with salmon-flowered Pulmonaria rubra ‘David Ward’; pale blue pulmonarias would be nice, too, as would white Lenten roses or the Sunset Group strain of Helleborus niger.
Because A. pensylvanicum ‘Erythrocladum’ is extremely difficult to propagate—it takes a skillful grafter to do it—sources are scarce, and you may even have to go on a waiting list. It’s worth it. The sight of those glowing branches takes the chill out of the bleakest February day.
A version of this article first appeared in Horticulture magazine, vol. 99, no. 1 (January/February 2002).