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Acer griseum (paperbark maple)

The paperbark maple is an ornamental tree with peeling, copper-brown bark. Its leaves start orange in spring, then turn successively pinkish-brown, yellow and deep green through summer and finally end up deep red in autumn.
Bark of Acer griseum

Bark of Acer griseum (Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Acer griseum (Franch.) Pax

Common name: 

paperbark maple, xue pi feng

Conservation status: 

Endangered (EN) according to IUCN Red List criteria in The Red List of Maples.


Mixed forest.

Key Uses: 


Known hazards: 

None known.


Genus: Acer

About this species

This slowly growing deciduous tree has a distinctive papery, coppery brown bark that peels away in curly flakes. It was collected in China by the French missionary Père Paul Farges and the Irish plantsman Augustine Henry. It was originally described by Adrien Franchet in 1894 as a variety of the Japanese maple, Acer nikoense. It was recollected by Ernest Wilson, introduced into Britain in 1901 and given its present name by Ferdinand Pax in 1902.


Acer nikoense var. griseum Franch., Acer pedunculatum K.S.Hao, Acer zhongtianoense W.P.Fang & B.L.Li, Crula grisea Nieuwl.


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Geography and distribution

Found in central China in Gansu, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, Shaanxi, Shanxi and Sichuan provinces, between 1,500 – 2,000 m elevation. Widely cultivated in temperate countries.


Acer griseum is a deciduous tree up to 20 m tall, but often smaller in cultivation. The bark is reddish-brown and peels in small sheets. The leaves have three leaflets that are downy underneath with downy stalks. The leaflets have coarse, blunt teeth, measuring 3–8 cm long and 2–5 cm across. The flowers are small, few, and yellow on pendulous downy stalks up to 3 cm. The wind-dispersed samaras (fruits with papery wings) are pale brown, downy, with spreading or nearly erect wings and hard round nutlets.

Threats and conservation

Acer griseum is listed as Endangered (EN A2c). Although it is found naturally over a large area of central China, the population is now fragmented, small and declining.


Acer griseum is a popular ornamental tree. It has received an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

Illustration from Curtis's Botanical Magazine

Curtis’s Botanical Magazine (Editor: Martyn Rix) provides an international forum of particular interest to botanists and horticulturists, plant ecologists and those with a special interest in botanical illustration.

Now well over 200 years old, the Magazine is the longest running botanical periodical featuring colour illustrations of plants. Each four-part volume contains 24 plant portraits reproduced from watercolour originals by leading international botanical artists. Detailed but accessible articles combine horticultural and botanical information, history, conservation and economic uses of the plants described.

Published for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew by Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Find out more about Curtis's Botanical Magazine

'Chinese' Wilson and Kew

In April 1899, Ernest Henry Wilson was sent to China by the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, to investigate the effect of the charcoal industry on forests, as well as being employed to look for new and interesting plants by James Veitch & Sons’ Nursery, Chelsea. Later, Wilson became known as 'Chinese' Wilson and eventually brought over a thousand garden plants to cultivation in Europe and America, including many well-known species, such as Acer griseum, Davidia involucrata (handkerchief tree) and Lilium regale (regal lily).


Propagation is difficult as this species tends to produce fruits with no viable embryos. It is therefore seldom successfully grown from seed by the amateur.

Fine specimens can be seen in a number of well-established gardens in Europe and southern England, where it does particularly well, growing on most well-drained soils including chalk.


This species at Kew

Acer griseum can be seen in several locations at Kew – in the Bamboo Garden, to the north of the Princess of Wales Conservatory, in the Director’s Garden, and from the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway. It can also be found north of the Lily Pond at Wakehurst.

Alcohol-preserved specimens of Acer griseum are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers from around the world, by appointment. The details of some of these specimens can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue. 

References and credits

Bean, W. J. (1989). Trees & Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles. Vol. 1. John Murray, London.

Flanagan, M. & Kirkham, T. (2009). Wilson's China: A Century On. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Gibbs, D. & Chen, Yousheng. (2009). The Red List of Maples. Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Richmond, Surrey. (accessed 5 October 2011)

Meyer, P. W. (2010). Paperbark maple Acer griseum. Arnoldia 68: 48-50.

The Plant List (2010). Acer griseum. Available online (accessed 13 September 2011).

Van Gelderen, D. M., de Jong, P. C. & Oterdoom, H.J. (1994). Maples of the World. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon.

Kew Science Editor: Martyn Rix
Kew contributors: Tony Kirkham
Copyediting: Malin Rivers

Although every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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