Ode to the Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Maple trees are among the most popular shade trees in America. They grow fast and tall, averaging 40 feet but capable of reaching 120 feet. I remember the one in the backyard of my childhood home on Long Island. We lived in a suburban development typical of its time: Finished in the late 1960s, the homes were similar in size and layout and every house sat on the same amount of land which was some measure of an acre. The community was called Point of Woods – which was humorous as most of the “woods” were cleared in order to build the houses. Most homes were surrounded by large areas of lawn. The yard cried out for a shade tree. Enter the maple.

Our maple tree felt special. My grandmother spotted the seedling growing in her tiny urban yard in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mature maples lined her two-way street; they were so large that their tops completely shaded the street and their shallow roots buckled the sidewalks. Grandma was no stranger to gardening so she nurtured that seedling for a bit and then potted it up and brought it to Long Island to plant in our new backyard. With lots of attention, but little actual care, it grew fast and tall and quickly delivered welcome shade.

Alas, I have no (good) photo to share of the maple of my youth. Besides, my tree may have been the invasive (!) Norway maple (Acer platanoides) which was widely planted as a street and shade tree back in the day. I have something much better to share with you — a spectacular red maple tree that has, for years, graced the Durham County, NC yard of a fellow master gardener.

Red maple trees are native deciduous trees. They tolerate a wide range of growing conditions which may be why they seem to grow carefree. It is one of the first native trees to flower in very early spring and there is something red about it year-round. It has red twigs, buds, and flowers in winter, reddish new leaves in spring, red leaf stalks and seeds in summer, and reddish (or yellow) foliage in autumn. 1   

There are a number of types of maple trees and it is not easy to identify them from afar. You need to observe their structure and then get close enough to observe the bark, the leaves and their arrangement, the flower and/or the fruit. A distinguishing characteristic of the red maple (in addition to its overwhelming redness as described above), is that the edge of its leaf, also known as the margin, is highly serrated.

To learn more about the characteristics of other maple trees, consult the NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox online.  

Photos by Wanda Cruthfield, used with permission.


1. Spira, Timothy P., Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont, 2011 University of North Carolina Press

Additional Resources & Further Reading

NC Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox
Also take note of the list of maples often confused with the red maple

Maple Tree ID – especially as it pertains to trees tapped for syrup

Beware the Norway maple – it is an invasive species! http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=275380https://www.invasive.org/alien/pubs/midatlantic/acpl.htm

Maple spider mites could be a concern


by Bob Shaw, EMGV

Japanese beetles have emerged in Durham County. We have been picking them from our orchard trees at Briggs Avenue Community Garden since the start of June. This time of year takes me back 40 years to our first house out in Orange County sitting in a large yard, but surrounded by woods. On an early June morning, as the sun warmed the ground, I watched in dismay as clouds of beetles rose from the turf. For the next years, I warred against them — inoculating my lawn with milky spore bacteria (then available only from the county extension agent) and with traps. More about traps later. Each afternoon, I’d come home from work and empty a full gallon of beetles from my traps into a bucket of soapy water. Over the years, I accumulated a large pile (not quite a mountain) of beetle husks. Eventually, I controlled them and my apple trees no longer had all their leaves turned to brown lacework, no longer were my peaches gnawed to brown, nasty pulp.

Japanese beetles on an apple tree.
Photo by Bob Shaw

At Briggs, we don’t have a plague and we manage them with an old plastic container of soapy water. In the cool morning, when they are still lethargic, one holds the container beneath the beetles’ leaf and, obligingly, they drop into it; this works best at 70 degrees or lower. As the temperature rises they are more active and are likely to fly as you approach. Collecting one is very satisfying, even more when a pair is caught in flagrante delicto or, even three or more, when onlookers are present.

We find beetles on, and eating leaves of, roses, apples, peaches and persimmons in the community garden. A few beetles are on our figs, but they haven’t eaten the leaves. Likely the broad, flat, green leaves provide a nice landing zone. But as the population grows, they range more widely: into mint and blackberries.

About traps:  As described above, I used them many years ago and traps saved us. If beetles are a plague, as they were with me, collection in cups of soapy water may not seem practical. However, be aware that beetles must be emptied from the traps every day or two to prevent them from rotting and releasing ammonia which is repellent to other Japanese beetles. Traps also can attract beetles from your neighbor’s yard, increasing the population in your yard. So what? – We want to be good neighbors, don’t we?

Sources & Further Reading


Coping During Japanese Beetle Season

Durhamites It’s Time to Nominate Your Favorite Tree In Praise of the Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis)

By Wendy Diaz EMGV

What a beautiful spring it turned out to be after that wet winter, and our native understory trees make the North Carolina spring that much more special. Durham’s Finest Trees is accepting nominations now through October 1 for the best examples of specific tree species in our county. The spring blooming trifecta of smaller trees like the Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis), Dogwood (Cornus florida) and Fringe trees (Chionanthus virginicus) are also eligible, not just our magnificent giants like the willow oak or tulip poplar. 

Eastern Redbud in full bloom. March 28, 2019 Photo by Wendy Diaz
Dogwood. April 13, 2019 Photo by Wendy Diaz

Fringe tree in full bloom on April 24, 2019. Photo by Wendy Diaz

Eastern Redbud

First to appear around early March along the margins of our leafless woodlands, as puffs of pink to light-purple color, is the Eastern Redbud. This tree is often multi-trunked with a rounded crown that typically grows to 10 to 25 feet with a similar spread1, 2. The showy pea-like flowers bloom on bare branches before the tree leafs out.  

Showy pink flowers on the branches of cultivated variety of Eastern Redbud attract honey bees. Photo by Wendy Diaz on March 28, 2019

After flowering, flat bean-like seedpods emerge containing six to 12 seeds. The heart-shaped to broadly ovate leaves are short pointed at the tip and are also attractive. The leaves turn yellow in the fall. The Eastern Redbud does well in full sun to partial shade. The benefits to wildlife are threefold as the blossoms provide nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies (Henry’s elfin butterfly Callophyrus henrici)3, the tree hosts its larvae4and the seedpods provide food for songbirds. Honeybees also use the flowers for pollen.

Native Estern Redbud self-seed in natural buffer area of our backyard. Photo taken April 4, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Closeup of self-seeded native Redbud in my backyard. Notice bee in upper left hand corner. Photo taken April 4, 2019 by Wendy Diaz

Many cultivars of Redbud are sold at your local nursery such as the cultivar ‘Forest Pansy’ with purple leaves. One of the most extensive collections of redbuds in North America is found at the J.C. Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh5.  Redbuds do best in moderate to dry soil conditions and tolerate clay soil. Protect their sensitive roots with a wide mulch apron. A new sterile (does not produce seed pods after blooming) variety developed by Dr. Dennis Werner at North Carolina State University called ‘Pink Pom Poms’ has beautiful double pink flowers6. It has Texas redbud genes so it tolerates heat, which is an important consideration due to our rapidly changing climate.

If you remember seeing a beautiful Redbud or any other impressive tree why not fill out the two page Nomination Form. Information on how to estimate the tree size is given on this webpage or the following link https://durhamnc.gov/1580/Durhams-Finest-Trees




3. https://plants.usda.gov/factsheet/pdf/fs_ceca4.pdf

4. https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=cecac

5. https://jcra.ncsu.edu/horticulture/collections/details.php?name=redbud-

6.  Triangle Gardener March-April 2019,  Beverly Hurley editor,  page 17

Leyland Cypress: And then there were (almost) none

by Andrea Laine, EMGV

The growth of three cypress at the far end of this photo seem stunted and just one large one, not pictured, remains. photo credit: Andrea Laine

Once upon a time, there were 10 Leyland cypress trees (x Cupressocyparis leylandii) along this fence (see photo). They were planted about 15 years ago and most had matured to 15-feet tall and a few feet wide. Sadly, three fell in a winter ice storm in 2013. And three more were blown over a few weeks ago in a 12 mph south wind following a very soggy December in Durham county. This loss is disheartening – especially as there are cypress hedges in landscapes throughout the area that seem to be doing just fine as my husband curiously noted.

Because Leyland cypress is a fast-growing, dense evergreen, they are attractive to homeowners and often used in landscaping as privacy screens. Indeed, the ones in my yard served that purpose; they were a natural buffer, so the view from my deck was of year-round greenery instead of my neighbor’s driveway and dog pen.

But what often goes unsaid is that fast-growing trees and shrubs tend to be weak and short lived (5).  As a master gardener, I’ve learned that the Leyland cypress, while popular, is not a well-regarded ornamental shrub. Though mine seemed to be healthy, the species is plagued by a variety of diseases and pest problems (6). Truth be told, I rarely observed them up close; they could have been suffering and I was unaware.

Hedging Options
Here are some shrubs we are considering to replace the fallen cypress, the general criteria being shrubs that are evergreen, grow tall and wide, are dense, grow well in sun to part shade, and enjoy well-drained soil. All the better if they offer some additional feature like fragrance or flowers. And, of course, they must grow in hardiness zone 7.

(1)  Chindo viburnum (Viburnum awabuki ‘chindo’)

(2)  Sweet osmanthus/Fragrant tea olive (Osmanthus fragrans)

(3)  Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria Japonica)

(4)  Nellie Stevens Holly (Ilex x ‘Nellie R. Stevens)

Not all plants will do well in all places. If you also desire an evergreen hedge, follow the links to NC Extension’s  Plant Database provided in the Resources section below to learn what these plants need and then consider if your yard can deliver the right combination of sun, soil and space conditions.

There are also non-shrub options for solving landscape challenges like this one. You can train an evergreen vine to climb the fence, install a solid fence, or screen the deck instead of the property line.

Resources and Further Reading:

(1) https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/viburnum-awabuki-chindo/

(2) https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/osmanthus-fragrans/

(3) https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/cryptomeria-japonica/

(4) https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/all/ilex-x-nellie-r-stevens/

(5) https://chatham.ces.ncsu.edu/2016/10/what-is-the-best-evergreen-for-screening/

(6) https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/leyland-cypress-diseases-insects-related-pests/




Biography of Durham’s Finest Tree* No. 12: Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)

by Wendy Diaz, EMGV

In 2017, Durham County Citizens nominated three large trees for the Durham’s Finest Tree program and they were evaluated in the fall of 2017. The 2017 winners have yet to be announced but one of the nominations is an impressive Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea)1 located at the south end of the Lowes Grove Middle School property in Southern Durham.


The Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak is very tall at a height of 101 feet. Its average canopy is 92 feet and its trunk circumference is 165 inches. The Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak is nearly as tall and as large as the nearby state champion found in Chatham County (located at the Veterans Memorial in Siler City) with a height of 114 feet, a crown spread of 64 feet and a circumference of 175 inches2. The Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak is fairly large for the species that typically grows between 50 and 80 feet with a rounded, open-shaped habit3. The Lowes Grove students affectionately call the stately Scarlet Oak, Abraham, which towers over the football field and its light pole near a small tributary of the Northeast Creek4.

Rounded, open-shaped habit of mature Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2017 


Broad, round canopy of Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on November 10, 2017


Species Description

The Scarlet Oak is native to eastern North America. It prefers dry to medium well-drained soils that are acidic and sandy1. This deciduous tree also likes full sun and grows rapidly. It is monoecious with neither the male nor the female flowers being showy. The fruit is a small acorn about half- to one-inch long. The acorns are eaten by woodpeckers, blue jays, small mammals, wild turkey and white-tailed deer3. The tree derives its common name from the reddish color of the wood not for its fall foliage. The Scarlet Oak bark is grey and furrowed. The glossy leaves are green in the summer turning scarlet in the fall. The leaves are deeply cut with bristle-tipped, pointed lobes and typically are three to six inches long. The Scarlet Oak is a low maintenance tree and makes a good shade tree with excellent fall color if it has sufficient space to grow.

Height measurement taken of Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak in late fall. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on December 7, 2017 

The Scarlet Oak can be confused with other similar oaks such as the Northern Red Oak and the Southern Red Oak. Its correct identification can be confirmed by comparing their leaves. Red oaks have pointed lobes but the Scarlet Oak leaf typically has five to seven deep lobes and its leaf shape is in between a Northern Red Oak and a Southern Red Oak; its leaf is not as broad as the Northern Red Oak and is not as deeply lobed as the Southern Red Oak which has a more pronounced main lobe. In addition, the grey bark of the Scarlet Oak is not as deeply furrowed as the Northern Red Oak bark.


Deeply pointed lobes of the glossy green leaves of the Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on October 24, 2017

Grey and lightly furrowed bark of the Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak (Quercus coccinea). Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on November 10, 2017












Local History

The area around the intersection of Highway 54 and Alston Avenue was the location of the Lowes Grove rural community dating back to the 1880’s.  The northeast corner was a landmark of innovative education since 1896 when a small log and frame structure was built. The name ‘grove’ came to be when the area residents organized informal church services in a farm building near a grove of trees in 1889. The Little Red School house was rebuilt in 1903 (relocated to the north side of the current Lowes Grove Middle School property). The old school facility was expanded and a larger building was built in 1910. The old Lowes Grove School was one of two schools in the state to receive a farm life grant and the campus was expanded with a demonstration farm in 1913 and in 1922 when the student population was 200 it underwent extensive renovations and three additional buildings were built and completed by 1925 and these four buildings were Durham County’s first all-brick school complex. The old campus was closed in 1989 but at the time the Little Red School house was one of the oldest continually operated buildings in North Carolina. The Lowes Grove area was also the site of the first credit union in the South, which was formed to serve local farmers in 1915.

Most of the buildings for the old school were demolished in 2006 except for one located to the north of the new South Durham Public Library located on the east side of Alston Avenue. Scarlet Oaks are known to have a life span of about 80 years, so it probably did not exist when the the original Lowes Grove school buildings were built but it certainly existed during most of the old rural school’s operation and continues to stand guard next to the new Lowes Grove Middle School today.

The Lowes Grove sports field lined with trees such as the Scarlet Oak provides the perfect habitat for their resident red-tailed hawk. Canopy of Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak on the left of the photo. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz October 24, 2017

Lowes Grove Scarlet Oak. Photo taken by Wendy Diaz on November 26, 2017


  1. http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=280714&isprofile=1&basic=scarlet%20oak
  2. http://ncforestservice.gov/Urban/big_species_results.asp
  3. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/trees/quercus-coccinea/
  4. http://www.northeastcreek.org/wordpress/
  5. http://www.opendurham.org/buildings/lowes-grove-school
  6. May 18, 2017http://durhamcouncilofgardenclubs.blogspot.com/2017/05 & August 10, 2017 https://durhammastergardeners.wordpress.com
  7. Four win in Durham’s Finest Trees contest” The Herald Sun-The Durham Herald, Durham, North Carolina Sunday, August 7, 2016 Page 6 (correction published on August 8, 2016)