In the Garden: Red Maple…or red maple?

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By Charles Kidder

I was helping my nephew out with the landscape at his new house when I commented on a Red Maple the contractor had planted in his back yard. My sister, something of a gardener, chimed in, “That’s not a red maple!” So who was right?

In a way, both of us, again reinforcing the perils of using common names when referring to a plant. To me, Red Maple means Acer rubrum, a large tree native to eastern North America. To my sister, it meant one of the Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) cultivars with burgundy-colored foliage.

The “real” Red Maple, Acer rubrum grows from southern Canada down to south Florida and west to east Texas. An extremely adaptable tree, it can be found from swamps to dry ridge tops and everywhere in between, although in different regions it may prefer certain habitats. As anyone who has lived near one would know, Red Maples are prolific seeders, a medium-sized tree producing about one million seeds per year. (Luckily for the rest of the world, most of these don’t survive to maturity.) Adaptability, along with its reproductive abilities, means the Red Maple is the most common tree in the U.S, according to the United States Forest Service. And Red Maple numbers are still on the increase. There are many more today compared to colonial times; fire suppression has favored them over oaks and pines.

Shade-tolerant Red Maple seedlings will limp along in the forest understory for a few years, waiting for their big break. When an opening occurs in the canopy, the lucky ones will take advantage of the sunlight and leap into action, often growing up to two feet per year. Mature Red Maples can reach 60’ to 80’ in height, but are not typically the giants of the forest.

Although their cousins the Sugar Maples (A. saccharum) are known for producing sugary sap and the resultant maple syrup, Red Maples also produce a sap that can yield a tasty product. However, once the Red Maple buds emerge, the sap takes on a disagreeable flavor, and the short sap season comes to an end.

Although many might think of daffodils or forsythia as harbingers of spring, Red Maples could easily claim the title. Spring has been tardy this year, but for the last few weeks you’ve probably noticed a red haze along the highways and at the edge of the woods. Many parts of the Red Maple are red—twigs, buds, flowers and fruits. (And what about the leaves in the autumn? Maybe, maybe not. More about that in bit.) Red Maples are one of the first trees to flower in the spring, perhaps even opening during a warm spell in February. The red flowers will first appear, followed by the reddish two-winged “helicopter” fruits or samaras. Even the leaves may have a reddish cast when they first flush. But what about in the fall?

Many Red Maples, especially those native to the South, show yellow coloration in the fall. In fact, I’ve seen trees that just go a dingy brown in some years. So if a kind neighbor offers you some seedlings off a local Red Maple, be aware that while they may grow just fine, fall coloring may disappoint. For the most part, you’d be better off seeking out a named cultivar from a garden center, most of which are primarily selected for autumn coloration.

One of the old standbys is October Glory, which has been around since 1961. The fall color is an intense red or brilliant orange and may not show up until November in our latitudes. In fact, the fall coloration can be affected by early freezes. Autumn Radiance has a dense, oval-rounded form with fluorescent red tones in fall. For a tree with a moderately columnar form, try ‘Brandywine,’ with red fall color that turns brilliant purple-red with the shorter days. Redpointe, also known as ‘Frank, Jr.’, has a good branching pattern and glossy dark green leaves that go bright red in the fall. It showed good heat adaptability in Georgia, so Virginia summers should not be a problem. ‘Sun Valley’ sports red coloration that may then progress to red-purple or peach-orange-red; it’s known for excellent color in the South. Finally, Summer Sensation (‘Katiecole’) was actually selected for glossy bright red new growth in spring and early summer, while fall color is a deep burgundy.

Given that Red Maples grow almost anywhere in the eastern United States, you might think that you could throw just about any growing condition at it. For the most part, you’d be correct, but certainly some sites would be better than others. For best growth, slightly moist, acid soils would be preferable. Full sun is good, although partial shade would be okay. (Given that they are typically grown as a “shade tree,” most will end up in the sun, which will also yield the best fall color.) A word of caution on Red Maples: they have a shallow, fibrous root system, so planting underneath them is not a good idea either for the tree or the smaller plants. Just provide them with a good covering of mulch. Also, keep those roots away from sidewalks and driveways.

Even though Red Maples are nearly ubiquitous, if you live in the treeless landscape of a new development, a well-chosen cultivar can bring spring flowers and brilliant fall color to your yard. Plus, you would have the real Red Maple.

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