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Tree to 15 m, though often not exceeding 5 m in cultivation; densely branched. Bark brown and scabrous. Branchlets green. Leaves deciduous, thin and papery, 5–13 × 7–16 cm, palmately five-lobed (rarely seven-lobed), largely glabrous, but for the tufts of hair in the vein axils of the lower surface, margins minutely serrate, lobe apex acute to acuminate or mucronate; petiole 2.8–6 cm long, glabrous. Inflorescence terminal, paniculate. Flowers 5-merous, staminate or hermaphrodite; sepals light green, ovate to oblong, petals light green, obovate to oblong, stamens eight, inserted outside nectar disc. Samaras 2–2.5 cm long, pale yellow when mature, wings spreading obtusely. Flowering May, fruiting September (China). Van Gelderen et al. 1994, van Gelderen & van Gelderen 1999, Xu et al. 2008. Distribution CHINA: southern Anhui, Fujian, Guangxi, Guizhou, Hunan, Jiangxi, Zhejiang. Habitat Montane forest between 200 and 1400 m asl. USDA Hardiness Zone 7–8. Conservation status Not evaluated. Illustration NT84. Taxonomic note Acer elegantulum var. macrurum W.P. Fang & P.L. Chiu has smaller samaras (1–1.5 cm long) (van Gelderen et al. 1994).
Acer elegantulum has a distinct resemblance to A. campbellii, from which it is separated in the Flora of China key only by having a glabrous instead of a pubescent disc within the flower. A rigorous phylogenetic study of this series is urgently needed. As seen at Hergest Croft, the posture of the leaves is slightly different, those of A. elegantulum being slightly drooping whereas those of the A. campbellii group are held flat. The leaves of A. elegantulum are also smaller and, in the specimens seen, more deeply lobed, giving a shape suggestive of that of Cannabis sativa. The leaves flush with shiny bronze to deep purple-brown, but become green when mature, with the stems remaining green. The whole plant has a very pendulous habit like other members of series Sinensia.
Acer elegantulum is represented in the major English and European collections, where it seems to grow well, flowering and fruiting well after 12–15 years, and it is also cultivated in the milder parts of North America. The first introduction seems to have been made in about 1985 from Shanghai Botanic Garden (van Gelderen et al. 1994), while a flourishing tree of over 3 m at Westonbirt derives from a 1986 introduction from Hangzhou Botanical Garden (le Hardÿ de Beaulieu 2003). It soon became available to collectors through the nursery trade. A tree at Tregrehan planted in 1989 is still only a couple of metres tall, but this may be due to its situation in a rather shaded place (T. Hudson, pers. comm. 2007). A specimen at Sandling Park, Kent was 3 m tall in 2006 (TROBI).