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