Maple Tree Identification – A Complete Guide

Maple Trees are one of the most popular and commonly used trees used for landscaping in the United States. In the wild there are around 15 native Maple species one may encounter depending on what part of the country you find yourself in. But many Maple Trees can look alike and be a challenge to identify. The bark, leaves, flowers, and winged seeds can all get confusing…

On the left is invasive Norway Maple, which doesn’t change color (to yellow) until later. Red Maple tree (right) showing fall color. Both these trees are wild.

So, I created this guide to help you identify the most common Maple Trees in North America. I will include comparisons of the leaves and bark for most major Maple species native to Eastern North America, as well as a couple non-native species that are either invasive or frequently encountered. From these large infographics, you can identify the likely candidates of your tree, and then jump to the more detailed species descriptions. Also, all images should be directly linked to the media file for higher resolution.

This guide is to help you identify all major species of Maple Trees in North America, with a focus on those Maples native to the Eastern half. It will help you differentiate the leaves, bark, flower, and seed of all common Maple species native to North America, as well as some non-natives that are now invasive or frequently used in landscaping.

Table of Contents

Below is an outline of this article. At the end of each individual section is a black ‘Back to top’ button that will return you to the table of contents.

Identification of individual Maple Species (Acer genus)

The following trees will have their own identification guides showing/describing the primary features with pictures.

After reviewing these trees, we will have some side by side comparisons. This can be important, as it is difficult to differentiate certain species.

Maple Tree Comparisons

Maple Leaf Identification

Below you will find a graphic showing leaves of the five most common Maple Trees in Eastern North America. This is intended for a quick comparison, so you can get a general idea of what tree you are examining.

Once you have a good indication of what it is, jump to the individual species section to confirm. I’ve linked each image to it’s media file, enabling you to get a higher resolution. And finally, it may benefit you to briefly review the different types of leaf margins here, as they can be most helpful to differentiate Maple species by leaf examination.

Please note that I’ve omitted Boxelder and Sycamore from the above image. The reason for this is that Boxelder has compound leaves (several leaves attached on the same stem to a branch), while the species above are simple (meaning a single leaf attached to a branch). Also, mature Sycamore trees are easily identified by their giant sized Maple-like leaves, and their smooth white bark.

Maple Tree bark identification

In addition to the leaves, I’ve also included this side by side comparison of bark for five of the more common Maple Trees you may encounter in North America. These are ‘mature’ trees, so their bark is well developed. If you are examining a younger tree (<10″ diameter), then it is much more difficult to determine the tree species based upon the bark alone. Nonetheless, use the image below to get a good idea as to the species you are looking at, and then jump to the individual species section to confirm.

Black Maple (Acer nigrum) Identification

Black Maple trees grow up to 80′ tall when mature and have a oval crown. The trunk bark is generally gray-brown or dark gray, smooth when young, and eventually roughened/furrowed with age.

The branch and leaf structure occur in pairs (opposite), and the leaves have 3-5 palmate lobes that are dark green in color attached with 3-5″ long petioles (stems). The leaf lobes will droop, giving the leaf a wavy appearance. The edges (margins) of the leaves are undulate. Leaf tips are pointed, while the sinuses are rounded.

Black Maple blooms yellow flowers in Spring that are about 1/8″ long (3 mm). Blooming doesn’t last that long, usually one, but sometimes up to two weeks.

In Autumn, Black Maple often turns yellow in color, but can also turn orange or red. The winged seeds (samaras) are paired and roughly 1″long.

Boxelder Tree (Acer negundo) Identification

Boxelder tree leaves do not resemble a typical ‘Maple’ leaf, but I’ve included them in this Maple Identification Guide as they are of the same genus (Acer), and they produce seed in a similar manner (samaras).

The Boxelder tree is a mid-sized tree up to 60′ tall and a trunk that can grow 2-3′ diameter (60-90 cm). It often is found along fence lines or along forest edges where it will branch abundantly. The bark of young trees and branches is green & smooth while the primary trunk will turn gray. Older mature trees will have a rough furrowed bark.

Leaves and branches are paired (opposite) on the tree. These opposite leaves are compound, and are odd-pinnate with 3-7 leaflets. And individual leaflets are 2-4″ long and will have several lobes. Leaves are a lighter green color and are attached by short stems to the branches. The edges will be serrated with large teeth (dentate).

Box Elder will bloom either male or female flowers in Spring. Male flowers will have small green flowers with about 5 large red stamens. Female flowers will be red-green with a single pistil and forked style. The winged seeds (samaras) will form after pollination and are roughly 1-1.5″ long (2.5-4 cm). They tend to have no angle between them, and are attached by a 1-2″ stem, which is unique. Initially green, they will turn brown and often stay attached to the tree through Winter.

Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum) Identification

Native to Japan and Asia, Japanese Maple is a commonly found as a landscaping tree in suburbs and commercial real estate. Making typically gorgeous red colors. But there are so many cultivars of this tree that positive ID can be difficult.

But Japanese Maples are usually 15-30′ tall, but most you will encounter in suburbia are shorter varieties <10′ tall. The bark is generally somewhat smooth, and they make gorgeous fall displays.

Japanese Maples have opposite (paired) palmate leaves that are roughly 2-5″ with 5-9 lobes with serrated margins. The leaf color can be green to red, and special varieties can even be dark purple or black.

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) Identification

Norway Maple is an invasive species from Europe. And unfortunately, was/is a popular choice for suburban, urban, and commercial landscaping due to it’s nice shape and beautiful fall colors.

It can be difficult to differentiate Norway Maple from other Maples based on leaf shape, but there is one telltale sign – the leaves excrete a white sap when pulled from the tree. If you see one, rip off a leaf, and look for sap that flows immediately. If you see white sap, your identification is complete.

But, botanically, mature Norway Maples can grow up to 80′ tall with a 30″ trunk diameter. Mature bark is dark gray ridges with brown furrows. The ridges can cross back on itself, similar to Tulip Poplar or Ash trees.

Leaves are fairly large, 3-6″ long and they will be wider than they are long. They are paired (opposite), dark green color, hairless, and usually with 5 palmate lobes. Like the overall size, the individual lobes are wider than they are tall with sharply pointed tips. There are infrequent teeth/serration on the lobes (dentate).

Norway Maple will bloom small yellow flowers in clusters that are 3″ diameter overall that are visually quite different from native Maple Trees. Individual flowers are small, 1/4″ to 3/8″ of an inch (6-9mm). Female flowers that are fertilized will produce pairs of winged seeds (samaras) that are wide, almost 180 degrees between them.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum) Identification

The Red Maple Tree is native to Eastern North America, grows up to 80′ tall with a 3′ diameter trunk. The bark on mature trees is gray and scaly. The scales can resemble tracks, or be irregular. Young bark is a lighter gray and smooth. The branching is opposite, as in it occurs in pairs.

Red Maple leaves are arranged in pairs (opposite), are generally 3-4″ long and slightly less wide than they are long. They have 3 palmate lobes and crenate-serrate margins. For color, they are medium green on the upper surface, while the underside is more pale green. For identification purposes against other Maples, the leaf shape, lobes, and margins (edges) are the most useful for identifying Red Maples.

And as expected, Red Maple leaves turn red in the Fall and are quite showy.

Like other members of the Acer genus, Red Maple trees may be solely female, male, or both. Flowers are approximately 1/8″ long, occur in clusters at leaf nodes, and are red in color. Male flowers will produce multiple stamens and be somewhat showy for their size, while female flowers look similar but without stamens. You will notice these blooming in very early Spring, one of the first flowers to emerge.

The flowers give way to winged seeds (samaras, or helicopters) that are 3/4″-1″ long (2-2.5 cm). They occur as clustered pairs that usually form a 45 degree angle.

Looking for more detailed info on Red Maple? See our complete guide to the Red Maple Tree here.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharum) Identification

The Silver Maple Tree can grow up to 100′ tall with an oval to obovoid crown when mature. It’s branches are generally pointed upwards (ascending) and are quite large. This tree doesn’t develop a long straight trunk, as the large branching starts early, so this species can’t really be used for lumber. The bark of young trees is smooth and light gray in color. Mature Silver Maple bark is dark and light gray, scaly, and may curl.

Leaves are arranged opposite on the tree and roughly 5-6″ long by 3-4″ wide. They have 5 palmate lobes that are quite deep. Much deeper than other Maple species. The margins of these leaves have large teeth. Besides the lobes, the color is a telltale way to identify Silver Maple trees as the upper surface is a rich green color, but the underside is a white-green or silvery color. In Fall the leaves will generally turn yellow.

In Spring Silver Maple will produce small clusters of 1/4-3/16″ diameter flowers that are yellow to red. Trees can produce all male, all female, or a mixture of male/female flowers. The tree can also change flower genders year to year.

Pollinated female flowers will give way to winged seeds (samaras) that are quite large, 1.5″-2.5″ long (4-6 cm).

You will most often find this tree growing near water, as it is quite moisture loving. It grows along river banks, ponds, and other waterways.

Looking for more detailed info on Silver Maple? See our complete profile on this Silver Maple.

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharinum) Identification

Sugar Maple trees are native to Eastern North America, can grow up to 100′ tall with a large 3′ diameter trunk. This tree can be found in dense forests or in the open. In the open, it will produce a globe-shape or ovoid crown.

The bark of Sugar Maple consists of flat plates that have a random pattern and is gray to gray-brown in color. Younger trees will have a more smooth gray bark.

Leave of Sugar Maple trees are opposite (paired) and 3-5″ long with equal width, and have 3-5 palmate lobes. The tips of the leaves are pointed, but not nearly as sharp as Norway Maple. The edges of the leaves are slightly serrated, undulate or dentate. The upper surface is dark green while the lower is a more pale green.

Like other Maples, Sugar Maple can produce either all male, all female, or both sex flowers which are produced in Spring. Flowers occur in clusters at leaf nodes attached with with 2″ stems. Individual flowers are 1/8″ diameter and yellow.

These flowers will give way to winged seeds that are roughly 1″ long, occurring in paired clusters. A pair of seeds will droop downwards with a 60-90 degree angle between them. This is another great way to differentiate Sugar Maple from Norway Maple, as Norway Maple winged-seed pairs occur at almost a straight line of 180 degrees.

Maple Comparisons

Some species of Maple really resemble each other. This section will make some side-by-side comparison of the features you need to differentiate these trees. It will mostly focus on comparing Sugar Maple with other species, as Sugar Maple can easily be confused with most other Maples.

Sugar Maple versus Black Maple

Sugar Maple and Black Maple are closely related. In fact at one time Black Maple was listed as a variety of Sugar, so botanically these two species are quite similar.

But the primary way to differentiate these species is by comparing the leaves and bark.

The easiest way to tell Sugar Maple leaves from Black Maple is to examine the lobes. Black Maple lobes will be more smooth and rounded, and generally only has three prominent lobes, while Sugar Maple will have 5 or more,.

For bark, Sugar Maple will have flat plates while Black Maple will not have many, and be rougher.

Sugar Maple versus Norway Maple

The easiest maples to misidentify would be Sugar Maple versus Norway Maple. The primary reason for this is that the leaves look so similar at a glance.

Norway Maple leaves have more sharply pointed tips, and are wider than they are tall. But again, as previously stated, the absolute easiest way to determine if it is a Norway Maple is to just rip off a leaf and look at the stem. If the stem of the leaf (petiole) is excreting milky white sap, then it is a Norway Maple, 100%.

The bark of Sugar Maple and Norway Maple can look similar, in particularly at a distance. But closer examination you can see the flat plates on Sugar Maple while Norway Maple has deep ridges.

Sugar Maple versus Red Maple

Sugar Maple can easily be differentiated from Red Maple by examining the leaves. Red Maple leaves will have more serrations along the edge of the leaf (margins). Also, the bark of Red Maple will have flat plates that form tracks, while the flat plates of Sugar Maple bark is often rougher than Red Maple.

Sugar Maple versus Silver Maple

Sugar Maple is easily differentiated from Silver Maple by comparing leaves. The underside of Silver Maple leaves will be a silver, white, or gray color, while the underside of Sugar Maple leaves are pale green. Also, Silver Maple have very deep lobes in comparison to Sugar Maple.

The image above shows the topside of the leaves, while the image below shows the underside of the leaves.

For bark, Silver Maple will have flat plates that often curl at the edges, making them easier to identify.

Final Thoughts

Although they can get confusing, Maples Trees can be successfully identified with a little knowledge, and some side by side comparisons! But, look to the leaves as your primary ‘tell’ as to the species. If that isn’t clear, go to the bark and finally the seeds, as different species have different sized ‘helicopters’ as well as the angle they are attached at. And finally, if you still can’t figure out the species with the images in this guide, it may be possible that you are dealing with a cultivar or hybrid of some kind, in which case you may only be able to rule out certain base species.

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[1] – Gabriel, William J. “Acer nigrum Michx. f. Black Maple Aceraceae.” Agriculture Handbook 2.654 (1990): 46. Accessed 17APR2023.

[2] – Overton, Ronald P. “Acer negundo L.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 41-45. Accessed 03APR2023

[3] – Nowak, David J., and Rowan A. Rowntree. “History and range of Norway maple.” Journal of Arboriculture 16.11 (1990): 291-296. Accessed 05APR2023

[4] – Walters, Russell S., and Harry W. Yawney. “Acer rubrum L. Red maple.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 60-69. Accessed 05APR2023

[5] – Gabriel, William J. “Acer saccharinum L. Silver maple.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 70-77. Accessed 02APR2023

[6] – Godman, Richard M., Harry W. Yawney, and Carl H. Tubbs. “Acer saccharum Marsh. sugar maple.” Silvics of North America 2.654 (1990): 78. Accessed 02APR2023

[7] – Nesom, G., Moore, L. “SUGAR MAPLE Acer saccharum Marsh.” USDA NRCS Plant Guide. 2001. Accessed 16APR2023.

Joe Foster

Hi - I grew up outdoors in nature - hiking, fishing, hunting. In high school I got my first job at a garden center where I learned to garden and landscape. I've been growing plants from seed and designing native plant gardens for over six years. I hope to share some of my knowledge with you! Additionally I am a wood worker / DIY enthusiast. I enjoy designing/building projects (with hand tools when I can!). I hope to give you some tips and useful information!

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