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The Monday Garden
Shades of Maple: Red

Issue No. 85 - November 9, 2003
by Sue Sweeney

Can't do autumn without maples, so this issue honors our wonderful native red maples. Here's one along a Stamford, CT sidewalk, showing off its range of colors and its telltale hallmark: next year's bud clusters.

The reds are the most "common" of our 13 native maples. They range from southern Canada to Texas and Florida, and west to the Mississippi. They're the dominant overstory tree where conditions suit, and because of the red maple's flexibility, conditions suit it more often than any other native tree. Unlike the invasive Norways, the reds "play nicely with others", helping to sustain a diversified forest.

In New England, red maples like damper conditions and are known as "swamp maples"; further south they prefers drier, often rocky, uplands. They are said to grow faster than the Norway and sugar maples but slower than the silvers and box elders. Red maples make great yard and "street trees" as long as the soil (and local pollutants) are not high PH.

Red and silver maples produce maple syrup (albeit not in the quality or quantity of the sugar maples), pulp, lumber, shade, and leaves good for composting. While red maples are said to be deathly poisonous to horses, they are an important winter food for rabbits, deer and moose.

In the Northeast, the maples you're most likely to see are the native reds, sugars and silvers, and the imported sycamores (not sycamore trees, sycamore maples ), Norways and Japanese. They turn color in this order: sugars, reds, Norways, silvers, Japanese, sycamore.

Each maple variety has distinctive features but since North America's blessed with many, many maple trees, there's a lot of variation, including confusing "cross-overs". For example, one hallmark of the red maple is red leaf stems but Norways and sycamore maples also sometime have this feature. (So, don't feel bad if you can identify most maples, most of the time; but not all of the maples all of the time.)

The pictured maple is a classic red: red leaf stems; small, three-lobed, toothed leaves, with the lobes pointing forward; and leaves turning multi-colored in the fall (they often look calico). The tree also has the classic smooth gray bark of a red maple; the bark often develops deep vertical furrows with age.


Red Maple along the Mill River with 5-lobed leaves showing the classic characteristics of a young, smooth trunk and an older, furrowed trunk.

The leaves of Norway, sugar and red maples can look very similar. The reds have notched sinuses between the lobes, the sugars and silvers have U-shaped sinuses, and the Norways tend to look like the webbing of a duck's foot.

if in doubt, look for the bud clusters. The only native maples with buds in clusters, rather than pairs, are the reds and the silvers. You can usually tell the two apart because the silvers have very shaggy bark and 5-pointed, deep cut, lacy leaves.

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

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