Out of the Woods: Celebrating Trees in Public Gardens
The Third New York Botanical Garden Triennial

Paperbark Maple

Acer griseum
Rutgers Gardens, New Brunswick, New Jersey

Named for its attractive bark, paperbark maple, a deciduous tree, is unsurpassed in its year-round beauty.  This ornamental tree is especially exquisite in the winter against a background of snow.  It grows to about 20-30 feet with an upright habit and a 25-foot wide open crown, sometimes with multiple trunks.  Its leaves are 3-lobed with grayish undersides, accounting for the species name of griseum.  Its flowers are insignificant and its fruits are winged samaras characteristic of maples.  Not native to the U.S., it was brought to Great Britain shortly after specimens first arrived in Europe from China in 1901.  Ernest Henry Wilson, a famous plant collector/explorer, is responsible for bringing it as well as over a thousand other Asian plant species to the West.


Choosing a tree to paint was a daunting task, given the enormous number of possibilities and gorgeous specimens I discovered when I first wandered around the New York Botanical Garden looking for inspiration.  So many beautiful trees, so difficult to make a decision.  Eventually, I found myself drawn to a striking paperbark maple. The variously textured and richly colored bark is what especially intrigued me.  Because I live in New Jersey, I wanted a nearby specimen so I could easily visit my subject on the spur-of-the-moment whenever necessary.  Luckily I found a lovely specimen at Rutgers Gardens, about 15 minutes from my home, a garden I enjoy visiting regularly.  This botanic garden, in New Brunswick, is affiliated with Rutgers University and is a local gem. 


I struggled to come up with a pleasing composition.  Should I depict the entire tree? Perhaps I should show various features of the tree such as leaves, bark, fruit and flowers.  Whatever I came up with did not satisfy me because it did not adequately show my favorite feature – the bark – well enough.  That is when I decided to do ONLY the bark. 


When I began to carefully examine the bark, it was mind-boggling.  There are so many colors, shapes, grooves, ridges, patterns, knots and dots, and curly peelings. In general, there are many reasons given for peeling bark, from splitting because the tree within is growing quickly while the outermost dead bark tissue layer is inelastic, to exfoliation being a way for a tree to rid itself of parasites.  Different species exfoliate for different reasons and in different species-specific patterns that are often distinctive enough to use for identification.


I made a conscious decision to include a small, dark cavity in my painting because I thought it added interest.  This cavity may have been caused by a broken branch and/or some sort of insect damage deep into the bark. Whatever the cause, it probably occurred many years ago and has since caused the growth to appear to radiate out from the cavity, creating a distinct pattern that looks like elastic skin that has been over-stretched.  A few inches from the cavity, the pattern curves and looks like drapery!  What makes wood grow in a form like draped fabric and how does it do that?  I can only guess that it was the result of plant hormones released in response to some stimulus like insect damage or uneven growth of the tree within. This has caused the upper side of the draping to grow more slowly than the lower side, creating a curved pattern.


Working on this painting was a little like working on an abstract jigsaw puzzle.  Consequently, I frequently found myself becoming totally lost in the detail and having to re-orient myself.  I eventually decided to work on small areas at a time, covering up the other parts so I could keep from losing my place. 

Read more about this artist’s work: Weird, Wild and Wonderful
  • © 2017 Ann Hoffenberg
    Paperbark Maple
    Acer griseum
    Watercolor on paper
    9" x 13"