There are many reasons red maple is one of the most common and cherished tree species in eastern North America. This deciduous ornamental grows rapidly to around 70’ tall in a wide range of habitats, budding out early with bright red flowers followed by emerging foliage and double-winged fruits. Because of its adaptable root system, it grows equally well along swamps and in dry, upland sites. However, the healthiest red maples grow in soils that are moist, acidic, and rich (another common name is swamp maple). Alkaline soils produce paler leaves and stunted growth. Red maple’s upright, spreading branches form an attractive narrow to broadly rounded crown with three-lobed leaves that turn brilliant red in fall. The species is named for its many red parts: winter twigs and buds, spring flowers, summer petioles, and fall foliage. It’s also called the trident red maple because the leaves usually have 3 lobes with sharply V-shaped sinuses. The tree grows rapidly for 20 to 30 years and can live to be 100 years old, providing decades of wildlife value as a host plant for nearly 300 caterpillar species.
Red maples are susceptible to anthracnose and verticillium wilt, along with cracking bark, overcrowding branches, and trunk injuries. However, good care can prevent most problems. Site trees so that their low canopies have room to spread. Use proper pruning to improve and strengthen the branching structure. Be sure to prune in summer, after the leaves have fully developed, to avoid leaky sap. And because the fast-growing maples can be slow to establish, trees younger than five years old may need watered if sited in am area that dries out.
Native habitats include recently cleared areas, partially open woodlands, low and wet areas, floodplains, and drier upland sites. Red maple is commonly used as a shade tree along streets and in yards.
Grows 40-70’ tall and 30-50’ wide domestically and, rarely, up to 120’ tall in the wild.
Grows in full sun and part shade.
Prefers moist, slightly acidic soils but adapts to well-drained sandy, loamy, and clay soils.
Five-petaled flowers occur in April or May in a few to many clusters on slender stalks along the upper parts of the young branchlets. Two-winged, dry fruits ½-1” long hang from slender stalks and mature 4-6 weeks after flowering.
Opposite, green leaves are 2-6” long and have silvery undersides, turning scarlet and sometimes orange and yellow in autumn. The shape is somewhat variable with 3-5 lobes, pointed tips, and singly or doubly toothed margins.
Trunk is 2-3’ in diameter. Thin bark is dark gray and smooth when young, developing long, narrow, scaly plates with shallow ridges as it matures. Branches are slender and smooth, turning from green to reddish brown.
Host plant for 273 species of Lepidoptera larvae, including rosy maple moth, the retarded dagger moth, the orange-humped maple worm, the maple looper, cecropia moth, and the Baltimore bomolocha. Maples are widely used by inchworms. Squirrels and other rodents eat the fruits, and deer and rabbits browse the young shoots and leaves.
Medicinal, Edible, and Other Uses:
Native Americans used the bark as a wash for inflamed eyes and cataracts and as a remedy for hives and muscular aches. Tea brewed from the inner bark was used for treating coughs and diarrhea.
The sap can be made into syrup.
Light-brown wood is softer and of poorer quality than that of sugar and other hard maples. It’s often used to make lower grades of furniture, flooring, cabinets, and veneer, and it’s well-suited for making clothespins, musical instruments, and boxes.
Caution: Leaves and bark are toxic to horses.
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