How To Identify Maple Trees: Facts About Maple Tree Types
By: Jackie Carroll
From the little 8 foot (2.5 m.) Japanese maple to the towering sugar maple that can reach heights of 100 feet (30.5 m.) or more, the Acer family offers a tree just the right size for every situation. Find out about some of the most popular maple tree varieties in this article.
Types of Acer Maple Trees
Maple trees are members of the genus Acer, which includes a lot of variety in size, shape, color, and growth habit. With all of the variations, it’s hard to pinpoint a few obvious features that make a tree a maple. To make maple tree identification a little easier, let’s begin by dividing them into two main groups: hard and soft maples.
One distinction between the two maple tree types is the rate of growth. Hard maples grow very slowly and live a long time. These trees are important to the lumber industry and include black maples and sugar maples, known for their superior quality syrup.
All maples have leaves divided into three, five, or seven lobes. The lobes on some maples are mere indentations in the leaves, while others have lobes so deeply divided that a single leaf can look like a cluster of individual, thin leaves. Hard maples usually have leaves with moderate indentations. They are dull green on top and a lighter color underneath.
Soft maples include a wide variety of trees, such as red and silver maples. Their rapid growth results in a soft wood. Landscapers use these trees to get quick results, but they may become a problem in the landscape as they age. Quick growth results in brittle branches that break and fall easily, often causing property damage. They are subject to wood rot and landowners have to pay the high cost of tree removal or risk collapse.
Another thing that all maples have in common is their fruit, called samaras. They are essentially winged seeds that twirl to the ground when ripe, much to the delight of children who get caught in a shower of “whirlybirds.”
How to Identify Maple Trees
Here are a few distinguishing characteristics of some of the more common types of Acer maple trees:
Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
- Highly ornamental trees, Japanese maples may only grow to 6 to 8 feet (2-2.5 m.) in cultivation, but can reach heights of 40 to 50 feet (12-15 m.) in the wild
- Brilliant fall color
- The trees are often wider than they are tall
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
- Heights of 40 to 60 feet (12-18.5 m.) with a width of 25 to 35 feet (7.5-10.5 m.) in cultivation, but may reach over 100 feet (30.5 m.) in the wild
- Bright red, yellow, and orange fall color
- Red flowers and fruit
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)
- These trees grow 50 to 70 feet (15-21.5 m.) tall with canopies that are 35 to 50 feet (10.5-15 m.) wide
- The dark green leaves are silvery underneath and appear to glimmer in the wind
- Their shallow roots buckle sidewalks and foundations, making it nearly impossible to grow grass under the canopy
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
- This large tree grows 50 to 80 feet (15-24.5 m.) tall with a dense canopy that spreads 35 to 50 feet (10.5-15 m.) wide
- Attractive, pale yellow flowers bloom in spring
- Brilliant fall color with many shades on the tree at the same time
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Read more about Maple Trees
13 Beautiful Species of Maple Trees
Many people decide to plant maples because they work well as shade, street, and specimen trees. Maples are renowned for their autumn colors many species put on a display of oranges, browns, yellows, and reds every year. Some trees may have leaves sporting several of these colors at once. Another desirable trait is the ability of many maples to tolerate drought.
Maple trees include a sizable number of species in the genus Acer within the plant family Aceraceae. Most of the maple species are deciduous woody plants, ranging from multi-stemmed shrubs to large upright trees with massive trunks.
Most maples are shallow-rooted trees that can push up sidewalks and other paving surfaces if planted too close. Many varieties also develop thick exposed roots that make it hard to mow lawns these types are better planted in a woodland setting or where the ground around them can be covered with mulch or a living ground cover other than grass. Most maples are also moisture-seekers, and their roots may infiltrate water pipes or sewer lines if they are planted above them. Always check the behavior of the maple species you are considering before planting it.
7 Reasons We Love Maple Trees
Here are 13 excellent maple tree species for your landscape.
Maple trees vary greatly on their mature height. Japanese maple trees, which are often crafted as bonsai trees, are the smallest variety. When they are fully mature, they will be between six and 25 feet tall. Sugar maples, the largest maple tree, are known to reach over 100 feet tall when fully mature.
- Maple trees cannot be tapped for sap until they are at least 30 years old.
- Sugar maples, the largest maple tree, are known to reach over 100 feet tall when fully mature.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
Mature Height/Spread: Red maple grows 40 to 60 feet tall, 25 to 35 feet wide. They occasionally grow 100 to 120 feet in the wild.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) leaves with intense red fall color.
Joey Williamson, ©2012 HGIC, Clemson Extension
Growth Rate: This tree grows at a medium to fast rate (10 to 12 feet in five to seven years). It has a moderate life span in urban areas it is longer-lived in wet areas.
Ornamental Features: The most outstanding feature of the red maple is its red, orange or yellow fall color lasting several weeks. One tree may have a combination of these colors. Trees vary in color and intensity, however, and some selections may only have a disappointing greenish-yellow fall leaf color. Seedling trees do not always have brilliant color cultivars are more consistently colored. Leaf color of red maple changes earlier than most.
The common name of the tree does not come from the leaf color, but from the flowers and fruit. In late winter/early spring (January-March) before leaves emerge, dense clusters of showy red flowers appear on twigs and branches. These flowers produce red to brownish fruit (samara.). The fruit are attractive to wildlife and cause no significant litter after they fall.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) with bright yellow fall color. The leaf petioles still exhibit the red color typical of red maples.
Joey Williamson, ©2012 HGIC, Clemson Extension
Landscape Use: The red maple is a valuable shade tree. It is an excellent specimen for lawn or street. Roots can raise sidewalks, but are not so aggressive to prevent use as street trees. Irrigation is necessary for street plantings, however, if not placed in wet soils.
As feeding roots are close to the surface, red maple should be placed where turf is not desired beneath the canopy. Turf in this area would struggle to survive, and could not be mowed without possible damage to roots protruding from the soil.
Ideal soil for red maple is moist, slightly acidic and fertile. Nutrient deficiency may occur in alkaline soils (above 7.0 soil pH). It grows best in wet areas but tolerates occasional moderate drought. Although naturally suited to partial shade, they also thrive in full sun. Fertilize established plants in spring.
Branches droop as the tree matures. Prune at the earliest age possible to create clearance beneath the canopy. Prune to a single trunk. Prune branches growing at sharp, upright angles to the trunk, keeping branches growing at right angles to the trunk.
Problems: Flathead borers attack young stressed red maples. Leafhoppers and twig borers cause problems on leaves and twigs. Bacterial leaf scorch can cause damage to leaves.
Designated a “soft maple,” wood is somewhat brittle, and branches are rather weak and subject to storm damage. Bark is thin and easily damaged by mechanical impact. Surface roots protruding from the soil are damaged by lawnmowers. Most red maples are not resistant to decay and begin to decline when damaged. Roots occasionally girdle (encircle) the trunk or root ball. Cut any circling roots, especially if located at the top of the root ball or close to the trunk.
- ‘October Glory’ – This selection has a good oval rounded form and grows 40 to 50 feet tall by 30 to 40 feet wide. Fall color is brilliant orange to red. Leaves may turn later than other maples and could be impaired by an early freeze.
- ‘Autumn Flame’ – This is one of the best cultivars. It has a pyramidal to rounded outline, and grows 40 to 60 feet tall by 30 to 50 feet wide. Fall color is an excellent orange to red. Very early fall color.
- ‘Red Sunset’ – This is also an exceptionally good cultivar, with early and intense red fall color. Grows to 40 to 50 feet tall by 30 to 40 feet wide.
- ‘Brandywine’ – This is a seedless male selection with a symmetrically oval shape and long lasting fall color that begins red and turns purple-red. Grows 35 to 50 feet tall by 25 to 40 feet wide.
- ‘Sun Valley’ – This is a seedless male selection with a symmetrically ovate crown and long lasting brilliant red fall color. Grows 20 to 35 feet tall by 15 to 25 feet wide.
Look carefully at the bark. If it is smooth to the touch, gray or gray-brown in color and the tree is relatively young, it might be any one of a number of common maples, including red, Norway, sugar or silver maple. The bark of these trees furrows as the specimens age. If the tree is mature and the bark is still smooth, the tree may be a hornbeam, ivy-leafed, Manchurian, Amur or mountain maple.
- Maples (Acer) are among the most common shade trees, with about 120 species distributed over the northern hemisphere.
- If it is smooth to the touch, gray or gray-brown in color and the tree is relatively young, it might be any one of a number of common maples, including red, Norway, sugar or silver maple.
Look at and feel the bark, if possible, if the tree is mature. If it is gray-black and lightly ridged and furrowed, the tree may be the popular Norway maple, but might also be a red maple. Other species with ridged, furrowed bark include the hedge maple and ash-leafed maple. The lesser known purpleblow maple has very rough, fissured bark, which may have a purple tinge when the tree is young.
Check to see whether the bark of the maple under examination is exfoliating or peeling off, revealing fresh, smooth bark underneath. The most common exfoliating species is the paperbark maple. The less common plane tree maple also has bark that flakes off to reveal orange-tinged inner bark. The three-flower maple also has exfoliating bark, which is brown to golden brown in color. If the bark has green and white stripes, the maple is the striped or snake bark maple.
- Look at and feel the bark, if possible, if the tree is mature.
- The lesser known purpleblow maple has very rough, fissured bark, which may have a purple tinge when the tree is young.
When trying to figure out a maple's species from its bark, consider the tree's geographic location. Some species have a very limited range, while others are widely distributed geographically. By combining observations about the age of the tree, along with the color and texture of bark, plus geographic information, you will be able to make a reasonable guess as to the species.
With more than 128 species of maple in the world, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they vary so much in size! Some maple trees can be grown as Bonsai trees, only a few inches tall. Others tower to upwards of 150 feet! The world’s largest known maple tree, a bigleaf maple found in Oregon, was 103 feet tall and had a spread of 112 feet! Unfortunately, the tree succumbed to a wind storm in 2011.
When you think of maple trees, you probably think of their foliage. But maples do flower as well! These flowers can be red, yellow, orange, and even green. The flowers are pollinated by insects like flies and honeybees. These seeds produce the iconic “helicopter” seeds that fall slowly from the trees’ branches.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the benefits of adding a sugar maple to my yard?
An obvious answer is year-round visual interest. The shade a sugar maple tree provides in the summer heat is a definite bonus for any landscape. Early spring flowers provide nectar for insects and birds. Cavities in the trees house a wide range of birds, including many songbirds and woodpeckers.
In what areas do sugar maple trees grow best?
While it is possible to grow sugar maple trees in USDA hardiness zones 3 through 8, the colder zones will have the most success. Maple trees need freezing temperatures for dormancy and to produce sugar. USDA hardiness zones 7 through 8 often do not have enough of the freezing and thawing cycles needed for sugar production. The trees still thrive and sport lovely fall foliage. They just will not give you gallons of maple sugar in the southern climates.
How much room does a sugar maple need?
Happy, healthy, sugar maple trees need ample room to spread out, and will not tolerate any crowding. Young trees grow from 12 to 24 inches each year. A mature sugar maple tree can reach heights of over 75 feet, with a canopy spreading up to 50 feet in diameter. Check for obstructions above where your tree will live for the next several hundred years. You should also take into account the fact that grass and other plants may not grow well under the shade of a mature sugar maple tree.