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The Monday Garden
Shades of Maple: Silver, Red and Norway

Issue No. 59 - May 11, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

Maples are my quintessential summer shade tree, the autumn colors are to-die-for, and I take their pictures all winter, but, ah, maples in spring.  The glowing seeds of a native red maple reflected in Stamford's Mill River mark the beginning of May.

In Southern New England, we are blessed with native red, silver, and sugar maples.  We also enjoy the mixed blessing of the immigrant Norway and Japanese maples.   The easiest way to tell the maples apart is to watch them flower in spring.

In early March, red fuzzy flower balls cluster along the sides of the branches of the silver maples, and then the reds.  The flowers look much the same but the silvers have very shaggy bark.  Later, when the seeds and leaves come out, you'll know the reds, also known as swamp maples, by the red stems (as shown here). 



The indentations between the 5 points in the reds' leaves are very shallow and notched, not rounded like other maples.   Silvers have deep, lacy cuts between the leaf points, and silver undersides.  

Next, the Norways' buds swell into fat boxing gloves at the branch tips.  In late April, the buds burst into fist-size lime green corsages.  Like the silver and red, the Norways' leaf out after flowering.  Come autumn, the Norways are the yellow ones.

Just days after the Norways bloom, the sugar maples put forth miniature, light olive green leaves above long flower fringes.   In summer, it will be hard to tell the sugar and Norway leaves apart.    Acid test: break off a leaf at its base, if white sap comes out, it's a Norway.  

Lastly, the Japanese maples, distinguished by their small size and graceful trunks, put out their leaves, some emerging bright scarlet.  The flowers follow.   BTW: Maples with summer-time red or bronze leaves are varieties of the Japanese and Norway - not the red - maple.

In my area, prior generations too often chose Norways.  Their oceans of lime-green flowers still perfectly set off the other spring flowers.  But Norways don't "play nicely with others"; their dense shade and thick roots crowd out all competition, even wildflowers and grass.  And each year, they still send off thousands of helicopter seeds with a disastrously high germination rate.  The forests north of town glow Norway-yellow in the fall but are missing the delicate wildflowers that I loved as a child and lack the bio-diversity necessary to soften the effect of devastating environmental plagues like the Dutch Elm Disease and the Asian Long Horn Beetle.

In some areas, Japanese maples have also become invasive in the forest understory to the detriment of our native dogwoods, blueberries, mountain laurels, and viburnums, to name a few.

By all means, plant trees; we desperately need them.  And choose maples but stick to the natives.   Could anyone leave a great gift to the next generation than a sugar maple?

From The Monday Garden. Copyright © by Sue Sweeney. Reproduced with permission. 

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