what maple is the gnarliest? i don't have the 50 years or so i'm guessing it takes to make a tree naturally twisted and bent, so am wondering if there is one kind that is known for this characteristic? thank you!!!
Personally I do not know but I can recommend something that is exactly what you're looking for. Grows fast and contorted and great fall color and stays pretty narrow with a single leader (doesn't take a huge spot). A great all-around tree.
Larix kaempferi 'Diana'. You cannot go wrong.
Up here in Logan Canyon (Utah) there are many, many gnarly box elders. You are looking for a gnarly maple, well, this fits the bill. They grow super fast too. I would look for something in an all male cultivar such as "Sensation" so you avoid the winged mess and invasion of box elder bugs. That cultivar is also particularly pretty and red in autumn which isn't typical of normally yellow box elders.
Don't know what conditions they need to create the burls, but they can get incredibly gnarly in the right conditions. Mostly I have seen them this way near water.
Some of the Japanese Maples in the Dissectum category are quite twisted and bent. One called 'Germaine's Gyration' comes to mind - named specifically because of its wild, twisting braches.