Acer circinatum - vine maple

Family: Aceraceae
Wetland Indictor Status: FAC-

General Species Description

Vine maple is a deciduous shrub that often has multiple twisted trunks unless growing in full sunlight when it can have a single trunk. The short grayish trunk and tangled greenish branches are often described as being vinelike, hence its common name. Its scientific name refers to the rounded or circicular shape of the leaves. It is a tall, erect shrub, growing to about 8 meters or 25 feet and about 20 cm or 8 inches in diameter.


The leaves of the vine maple are always brightly colored, ranging from the bright green of spring, to orange and red in autumn. The leaves are opposite and grow to about 6-11 cm long and wide. They are rounded with 7-11 veins going from the notched base along the equal number of long pointed lobes that are sharply double toothed. The leaves are paler on the underside with patches of hairs along the veins.


The flowers of the vine maple have spreading purple sepals and whitish petals, and grow to about 12 mm wide. The flowers usually have both male and female on the same plant, with new leaves in the spring, and grow in clusters at the end of short twigs. Blooms in late spring.


The fruits of the vine maple are the typical maple propellers with the two reddish wings pointing away from each other. They are generally 4 cm long, one seeded, and reddish when younger until they mature in autumn.


Vine maples are often found in moist soils, along shaded stream banks, and communities adjacent to wetlands where the soils are not saturated for long durations. They often make up part of the understory of coniferous forests, and thrive in nitrogen rich soil.


The vine maple is found from SW British Columbia to northern California, most often west of the Cascades. Though generally found at below 1000 m in elevation, they are seen up to 1524 m. Is not often found in the San Juan islands due to lack of moisture, but is found in all counties of western Washington and northwestern Oregon.

Similar Species

The vine maple can be confused with many similar species, however, there are distinguishing characteristics of all of them. Acer glabrum (douglas' maple) has fruits that form a "v", leaves that have 3-5 lobes, is not as frequently found west of the cascades, and does not sprawl. Saplings of Acer macrophyllum (big-leaf maple) have leaves 25-30 cm wide, and deep purple buds that are 1.5-2 cm long. Physocarpus capitatus (pacific ninebark) has alternate leaves and reddish bark that sheds. Vaccinium parvifolium (red huckleberry) has alternate leaves and finer twigs that are ridged in cross section.

Ecological Value

Vine maples often provide habitats for birds and are a good source of food for a variety of wildlife. It also is an effective buffer from both humans and other wildlife into a wetland, and the root mass is an important stabilizing factor along stream banks.

Human Value

Vine maple was used by Native Americans for woven baskets, wooden bowls, and fuel. It is also commonly used for ornamental purposes due to its intense coloration.


Cooke, S. S. 1997. A Field Guide to the Common Wetland Plants of Western Washington & Northwestern Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society, Seattle WA, p. 18 Guard, B. J. 1995. Wetland Plants of Oregon and Washington. Lone Star Publishing, Richmond WA, 194 Hitchcock, C.L. and A. Cronquist. 1973. Flora of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA, p. 289 Kozloff, Eugene N. 1995. Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA, p. 23 Little, Elbert L. 1997. National Audubon Society Field guide to Northwest American Trees: Western Region. Alfred A, Knopf, New York NY, p. 529 Pojar, J. and A. MacKinnon. 1994. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, Washington, Oregon,British Columbia, and Alaska . Lone Star Publishing,Richmond WA p. 93

This page was created by: Maya O'Neil, August 1998

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