Plant Tales No 3: Acer campestre, 'Field Maple'
Regular readers of our blogs may have noticed a slight penchant for using hedgerow plants within a gardened context – and, they’d be right! Such understated and familiar rural plants offer a wonderful counterpoint to a more structured geometric plan. There is also a similarity to the Japanese philosophy of ‘elevating the ordinary’ here, plus a touch of nostalgia for the Yorkshire hedgerows of my childhood.
Acer campestre, the UK’s only native maple, is one such plant. Tough as old boots when the east Yorkshire farmers unceremoniously flail-cut the hedges, this tree can also be transformed – like Cinderella to the ball – by being pleached into many different shapes to suit a scheme. It can be sourced as a multi-stem, a stilted hedge, a cloud-pruned feature, or simple single-stem pollard – a long way from the flailed Yorkshire hedge!
It’s light brown bark, with corky fissures, give a pleasing gnarled, sculptural feel; and its show stopping buttery yellow autumn colour works well in the slickest of urban gardens bringing a little of the countryside to the town.
I’ve always been struck how the French make their plants work-fit for their location and I enjoy using plants that can thrive with this treatment. Acer campestre never completely loses its robust, rural brawn – and, like hornbeam this resilient deciduous tree isn’t fussy! It’s neither overly demanding of soil type, aspect or exposure to winds or pollution, it is tolerant of both sun and partial shade, and it offers a great habitat and food for a wide range of wildlife. You can even make maple syrup from its sap – but I haven’t managed this yet!
In a small garden they will need forming or pleaching every year to prevent them from growing into a 20m tree. Don’t be bound by the standard list of ‘small garden trees’ for an urban garden – rather, take charge and tame a big and beautiful beast!