An ornamental tree or shrub is defined as having a desired characteristic that adds color from flower, foliage or fruit, good texture from leaves or bark, or seasonal interest. Ornamental trees are usually smaller in size than shade trees and fulfill an important role in a well-designed landscape.
One of the most ornamental trees available, which is seldom seen since it is little known, is the Three-flower maple (Acer triflorum), a native of China and Korea, which grows well in our Zone 4 landscape. Growing to 20 feet tall and wide it is well suited for small areas and can be used as a specimen, or in borders or as a small street tree.
Some of the unusual features of the Three-flower maple are its brownish-black leaf buds from which velvety textured new leaves emerge in late spring. Soon thereafter, flowers appear in three-flowered clusters, hence its botanic and common names. In late autumn, the leaves change color spectacularly, ranging from golden yellow to plum, or to pumpkin-orange bordering on red, rivaling even the celebrated Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) for its autumn brilliance in the landscape. In winter, the tree displays vertically exfoliating bark in hues of cream, beige, and dark brown with golden amber undertones. The peeling bark is one of its outstanding characteristics.
The three-flower maple was discovered by noted plant explorer Ernest H. Wilson of Harvard University’s Arnold Arboretum during an exploration trip to Korea in 1917. The seeds from the tree were sent to the Arnold Arboretum and planted. In 1923 this new species to the United States was introduced into cultivation. Its seedlings were planted at the Arnold Arboretum where many fine specimens can be found today.