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The Monday Garden
Shades of Maple: Silver

Issue No. 115 - June 6, 2004
by Sue Sweeney

The silver maple (Acer saccharinum), along with the red maple and the sugar maple, is one of the Northeast’s three great native maples. Also called the soft maple, white maple, weirs maple or river maple, it’s found in moister sites throughout the cooler parts of Eastern North America and the Midwest.
picture: silver maple along Stamford’s Mill River
The silver maple is a relatively short-lived, soft-wooded, weak-branched fast grower that can reach 70 to 100 feet. Accordingly, it’s not the best tree for the yard where you’d like some a bit smaller and less likely to drop major branches on the roof. Likewise, it’s not the best street tree since it’s not particularly tolerant of de-icing salt, drought or urban pollution, not to mention the dropping branches.

However, in its proper environment, the silver maple is truly a “wonder tree”. Where it loves to be is along rivers and streams or open woods near water. There, even more than its cousin, the red maple, the silver maple is the supermarket and condo of the native riparian community.

The very early spring buds of the red and silver maples sustain hungry squirrels and other critters after winter stores are gone. These two maples flower long before most other native plants, providing protein-rich pollen that allows the awaking bees and other pollinating insects to recover from their winter fasts and begin their reproductive cycles.

The large golden-tan seeds (actually, winged samaras) ripen in May providing food for an impressive list of birds and small mammals. Over the summer, numerous insects take small bites out of the leaves or borrow into the soft, sweet wood, and, in turn, become bird food.

The silver maple’s multi-trunk habit and soft wood form snug cavities perfect for nesting raccoons, possums, squirrels, owls and wood ducks, just to name a few of the tree’s regular occupants. Its high branches, usually convenient to water, are the preferred roosting place for red-winged blackbirds, starlings, and the like. It’s also an ecological “anchor” for the water-side breeding habitat of several ducks, herons, egrets, warblers, flycatchers, woodpeckers, thrushes, nuthatches, vireos, rose-breasted grosbeaks, hawks, and owls, among others.

picture: new spring growth, Mill River, Stamford CT
If all that weren’t enough, beavers like silver maple bark, and the deer and rabbits browse on the trees in winter.

Accordingly, the silver maple is considered an ideal “reclamation tree” when restoring a large swampy area or other site with flooding. Commercially, silver maple wood is used for lumber and pulp. The leaves make good compost, and the tree does produce sugar but not of the quality of the sugar maple.

How to spot a silver maple: In summer, the medium-size, deeply-cut, lacy leaves with the silver under-sides are unmistakable. In winter and early spring, look for the very shaggy silver bark (often with red-orange peeking through), irregular, reddish bud-clusters, and red-orange pom-pom flowers. The red maple has similar buds and flowers but the red’s buds are more regular and the flowers are redder and showier. The silver’s seeds are very large and golden, while the red’s are small and rusty-colored. Look also for the silver’s characteristic shape: often multi-trunked with branches that arch up, then dip down toward the tips.

picture: multi-trunked silver maple, Cove Island, Stamford Ct
In fall, silvers turn color late, and aren’t particularly showy – usually yellow or yellowish green, occasional red.

Should you be thinking of planting a silver maple, give it full sun, acidy soil (red maples and silver maples do not do alkaline soil), and plenty of space and moisture.

picture: silver maple sapling in fall, Mill River, Stamford CT
picture: stand of young silver silvers, Mill River, Stamford CT
picture: mature silver maple in fall, Cove Island, Stamford CT
From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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