Red Maple – A Complete Guide For What You NEED To Know


Red Maple is a deciduous hardwood tree native to Eastern North America. Scientifically known as Acer rubrum, it grows 60-90′ tall in full sun and moist to dry soil, and puts on an amazing display of Fall color with it’s red to orange leaves. Blooming beautiful red flowers early in Spring, it is an important food source for bees emerging from Winter.

In this article:

What is Red Maple

A fast growing hardwood tree, Red Maple is one of the most adaptable of all the native Maples in that it can grow in wet to dry sites and is tolerant of flooding. In optimum conditions it will grow two feet per year or more, and often reaching heights of 70+ feet by half as wide. Popular in landscaping for it’s fall colors, it will make a beautiful round to oval crown when mature. [1]

In the vast forests, Red Maple is a ‘sub-climax’ species in that it will quickly spread itself to disturbed areas. But eventually (after many decades) be overtaken by taller species such as Oak and Hickory.

Native Range of Red Maple

The native range of Red Maple is huge! It covers everywhere from Newfoundland in Canada South to Florida, then West to Texas and Manitoba. It is generally native in this entire range with the exception of the prairie and grasslands of Iowa and Illinois. [2]

Native Range of Red Maple Tree, Acer rubrum

Red Maple Reference Table

Scientific or Latin NameAcer rubrum
Common Name(s)Red Maple, Scarlet Maple, Swamp Maple, Soft Maple, Carolina Red Maple, Drummond Red Maple, Water Maple
Native Range, USDA ZoneEastern United States. USDA Hardiness Zone 3-9
Bloom TimeEarly Spring
Bloom Duration, Color1-2 weeks, Red to yellow
HeightTypical height 60-90′ (18-27m), Max 125′ (40 m)
Growth Rate12-30″ (30-76 cm) per year depending on conditions
Spacing / Spread30-50′ (10-15m)
Light RequirementsFull sun to part shade
Soil TypesSandy loam to clay loam
MoistureMoist to wet
Fauna Associations / Larval HostsBees, flies, beetles, birds, forage for deer/elk/rabbit. Hosts two moths.
References [1][2][3]

What are the Benefits of Red Maple

Fall Color

Red Maple puts on an amazing display in Autumn with it’s leaves turning to bright, brilliant shades of red to orange. It is often planted in residential areas or cities partly for the beautiful leaves in Spring and Fall.

Beautiful fall colors of Red Maple

Adaptable

Red Maple is the most adaptable of all Maples to different growing conditions, being able to establish itself in moist to dry soils and a variety of soil conditions.

Fast growing

In optimum conditions of full sun and moist to medium moist soil, Red Maple can grow more than 2′ per year. This fact also makes it popular with new construction, as it can quickly establish itself and reach it’s full form quickly.

Pollinators

The flowers on Red Maple trees are one of the absolute first flowers to bloom in Spring. They are densely covered, and provide tons of pollen and nectar to bees, pollinating flies, and nectar seeking beetles. It is a very important food source for our pollinators! [4]

Sometimes in online forums I witness debates in the native plant communities regarding whether people should allow dandelions in their lawn. Generally someone will state that dandelions are the only thing blooming, and are important to bees. However, these same people are often unaware of how many flowers are blooming in trees, which is a nectar/pollen source for bees. In fact that is often why you don’t see pollinators as much in Spring, they are all in the trees! And, Red Maple is just about the first tree to flower.

Wildlife value

In addition to pollinators, Red Maple does host two wood boring beetles. And the seeds do feed several species of birds. Also, deer, elk, and rabbits will chew on new or young foliage.

Grow and Care for Red Maple

Red Maple is probably the most adaptable of all Maples for being tolerant of a wide variety of growing conditions.

Red Maple Sunlight Requirements

For sunlight, Red Maple will grow best in full sun. It can grow in partial shade too (4-6 hours of sun per day). However in partial shade the form may become irregular.

Soil Requirements

For soil, the optimum conditions are loamy soil that is slightly acidic. It can tolerate sandy loam to clay loam though.

Moisture Requirements

Red Maple can grow well in most moisture conditions, from moist to dry soil. It is tolerant of flooding, but can become damaged if sand or silt piles on top of the existing soil, burying the roots too deep. [1]

Maintenance

Dead or damaged limbs should be pruned when observed. If insects are active, take care to ensure they cannot contact the open wounds. Ideally any maintenance pruning should be done in late Winter, when insects are dormant, but after the coldest parts of Winter have passed. Do not over-prune young trees, as you may cause sunscald.

Fertilizer

Red Maple should not require any supplemental fertilizer. When first transplanting, a moderate amount of compost can be beneficial. But overall research has shown that fertilizing transplant Red Maple trees does not offer any benefits. [5]

Identification and Characteristics of Red Maple

Crown

Red Maple will present a pyramidal or elliptical crown when young, changing to a rounded or oval crown when mature. [3]

Trunk / Bark

Mature Red Maple trunks are generally 30-36″ diameter (up to 1m) with the largest recorded being approximately 5′ diameter. [1] New twigs/leaf shoots are light green with white lenticels.

Red Maple bark is best described as gray, rough textured and irregularly scaly. When young, the bark is smooth and a lighter color gray.

Red Maple Bark (mature).
Several examples of Red Maple bark. Branch and twig are in the upper left image

Leaf

Red Maple leaves are opposite, generally 2-4″ long and slightly shorter in width, and have 3 palmate lobes while the base is slightly rounded to cordate. The leaves are attached by 2-3″ long stems (petioles) and edges (margins) of leaves are coarsely serrated. The upper surface is generally medium green while the underside is pale gray-green. Leaves are generally hairless (glabrous). [3]

Red Maple leaves in Summer

Fall Color

in Autumn Red Maple leaves put on a glorious display as they change from green to a brilliant red color. Although depending on conditions and genetics, it may turn orange or even yellow (I’ve seen it).

Irregular colors on Red Maple leaves

Flower

Red Maple trees are either male, female, or can develop both male/female flowers. Both male and female flowers are approximately 1/8″ (3 mm) diameter and long and red to yellow in color with 5 petals. Flowers bloom in early Spring for 1-2 weeks and are mostly wind pollinated.

Red Maple flowers in Spring. An important food source for pollinators.

By late Spring female flowers are replaced with pairs of Samara (helicopters) that are about 3/4″ long (9 mm). Wind distributes the seed far and wide.

Root

The root system of Red Maple trees is variable depending on soil and growing conditions. On wet sites Red Maple will produce short taproots and wide lateral roots, while on dry site they will develop deep taproots and shorter laterals. But in general for most sites, Red Maple roots exist within the top 10″ (25cm) of soil. [1][6]

How to Grow Red Maple from Seed

The samaras (helicopters) of Red Maple ripen in late Spring and will begin to fall from trees when mature. Each individual helicopter will contain a single seed. Do not collect seeds before the tree starts dispersing them, as it may be immature and won’t have as high a germination rate.

If you are collecting seed from Northern populations (zone 3-4) or your tree is located in a Boreal forest, you will need to cold stratify your seed for 120 days, or Winter sow it. For other locations, fresh seed does not require any stratification or any other special treatment. But research has shown that seed from northern populations would not germinate in boreal forests until the following Spring. [7]

So, for most locations (zone 5 or higher) you can plant immediately upon collection. You do not need to remove the wing from the helicopter. However if your are in zone 4 or less, you should plan on cold stratifying for 120 days or Winter sowing your seed.

Process to germinate Red Maple seed

  1. Collect seed as it falls from trees in late Spring.
  2. Fill a large container or pot with moist potting soil
  3. Press the seed into the surface of the soil.
  4. Place the container in a location that receives morning sun and afternoon shade.
  5. Keep the soil moist, watering in the morning only. (this prevents surface fungus or mold).
  6. Germination will generally begin within two weeks, and continue for a total of four weeks.

Seed collected from the previous year can be germinated the following season. But you should cold-stratify the seed for 90 days or Winter sow the seed.

Red Maple cotyledons shortly after germination

Germination is epigeal, with cotyledons showing themselves for sometime before the true leaves. When transplanting seedlings out to final location, a tree shelter should be used and staked. This will help protect it from deer and rabbits. Although netting may need to be applied at a later date when protruding through the shelter.

Red Maple seedlings

Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Red Maple

Insects

Red Maple is an important food sources for nectar and pollen seeking insects early in Spring, when they emerge after after Winter. Numerous species of bees visit the flowers for food, making Red Maple and incredibly important food source for pollinators. [pollinators] Remember, Red Maple flowers are one of the earliest flowers available! [4]

Two moths (Maple Loope & Lesser Maple Spanworm) are hosted by Red Maple. There are also several insects whose larvae bore through the wood, damaging the lumber value (but providing food for woodpeckers). [1]

Birds

Bobwhite Quail, Grouse, Turkey, Nuthatch, Finch, and Grosbeaks eat seeds of Red Maple. Woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds will consume beetles, caterpillars, and larvae on Red Maple.

Sapsuckers eat the sap of Red Maples, and may cause enough damage occurs Ringshake may form. Ringshake is a separation in annual rings, and can greatly reduce the strength of the lumber.

In addition to food, various birds and animals such as Pileated Woodpeckers, owls, and squirrels build nests in the cavities of older trees.

Deer and Rabbits

Deer and Elk do enjoy browsing new and young growth of Red Maple, and it is an important source of Winter food for them. If you have deer in your area, you should consider using tree shelters, netting, or cages to prevent damage. Rabbits are also known to eat new tender bark of trunks, injuring or killing trees. [1]

Pests

There are many insects that feed on the Red Maple. And they can be very damaging or accelerate the death of a weakened tree. The worst being borer insects such as the Columbian Timber Beetle, Gallmaking Maple Borer, and the Maple Callus Borer.

Red Maple is also suceptible to scale insects such as the Maple Leaf scale and Cottony Maple Scale. Red Maple is also plagued by the Gypsy Moth, Linden Looper, Elm Spanworm and Red Maple Spanworm.

Disease

While there are several forms of leaf disease that can negatively effect Red Maple, they are not damaging to the overall health of the tree and only have cosmetic effects. Nor is Red Maple effected by root disease with any frequency with the exception of Armillana mellea, which can enter via open wounds or butt wounds. But – A. mellea is generally only fatal to trees that are already weakened from other diseases.

Fungus

A fungus, Inonotus glomeratus is particularly damaging to Red Maple (as well as other members of the Acer genus). It makes a cinder-like black mass in the openings of dead branch stubs and wounds. Most damage occurs above the stubs. So, damage lower on the trunk of even young trees can mean a high risk of future tree failure.

Other fungi

Oxyporus populinus is a fungus that presents itself as “small white fruiting body” that will frequently have moss growing on top of it. Phellinus igniarius (Heart Rot) will effect red Maple. And lastly, there are several fungi species that can result in cankers.

Where you can buy Red Maple trees

Straight native Red Maple trees are often not sold in nurseries, as they tend to promote cultivars or varieties of Sugar Maple. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.

Varieties of Red Maple

Due to it’s popularity as a landscaping tree, numerous varieties and cultivars of Red Maple exist. [8] A small sampling of the dozens available:

  • Autumn Flame – exceptional red-yellow fall color, shorter in height
  • Bowhall – Red-orange fall color
  • ‘Curtis’ – Red color, shorter.
  • ‘October Glory’ – not as cold hardy, used in Southern States
  • ‘Summer Red’ – Burgundy foliage in Spring, shorter.

Uses of Red Maple

Garden Uses

Red Maple is widely used as a specimen or mass planting landscape tree or shade tree, and it is easy to understand why. It’s fast growth mean it can get established and gain height quickly for new homes. And the brilliant fall foliage is almost unmatched in color, with Sugar Maple being it’s only real competition.

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

In addition residential landscaping, Red Maple does great as a street tree. The only concern being that Red Maple does not tolerate pollution/smog well, so it’s use as a street tree needs to be confined to less industrialized areas. [3]

Now, if one is shopping for Red Maple they should inquire as to the source of the parent stock. As with most plants, the origin of the tree may influence some localized characteristics. For instance, Red Maple from the Northern range are the most cold hardy, reddest Fall foliage and flowers, and a most resistant to Winter injury such as Sun Scald.

Syrup production

Red Maple sap can be used to make maple syrup. A 1967 study comparing sap from five different Maple species found that Red Maple was equal to Sugar Maple sap in terms of sweetness, flavor, and quality. [9] Red Maple buds will break much earlier in the season than Sugar Maple, and when this occurs there are chemical changes to the sap. These changes will make the sap not taste as good, and thus the tapping season for Red Maple is much shorter.

Lumber Uses

Within the lumber industry, Red Maple is known as ‘soft maple’, with Janka ratings of 700-950. [10] And although it is closed grained and resembles Sugar Maple, it is softer and not as heavy. Also, Red Maple will shrink more during the drying process than other Maple species. So, pay attention to end grain when sawing or purchasing Red Maple to avoid warping.

Companion Plants

Because of it’s adaptability, Red Maple can grow nicely with a large number of other tree species. For an excellent pairing for more fall color, try Sweetgum, Tulip Poplar, or Sugar Maple. Red Maple is also tolerant of Juglone, and can grow near Black Walnut.

Medicinal Uses

There are thirty-three uses of Red Maple documented by nine different Tribes. Primary uses were using the sap to make syrup or as food or using the lumber. But Red Maple was also used medicinally. And infusion of bark was used to make a wash for wounds, back pain, or hemorrhoids. And several tribes, not geographically close to each other all had similar use in making an eyewash from the inner bark. [11]

Final Thoughts

Red Maple is a highly adaptable, beautiful, and is beneficial to wildlife. It is easy to grow on a wide variety of locations (hence it’s huge native range). Furthermore, it is one of our most beautiful native Trees in Autumn (if not THE most beautiful).

If one wants to start trees from seed, it is not difficult. Although the seedlings will need protection from deer and rabbits. But it’s fast growth rate mean it should be able to become established with use of regular tree shelters.

All in all, it is hard not to like this tree, as you can pretty much plant it anywhere in the open and have it look great.

Find more native plants here

References:

[1] – Walters, Russell S., and Harry W. Yawney. “Acer rubrum L. Red maple.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 60-69. Accessed 16DEC2022

[2] – Acer Rubrum, USDA NRCS. Accessed 16DEC2022.

[3] – Head, Bob H. Hutchinson’s tree book : a reference guide to popular landscape trees, Taylors, S.C. : Hutchinson Pub. Corp, 2006, pp217.

[4] – Batra, S. W. T. “Red maple (Acer rubrum L.), an important early spring food resource for honey bees and other insects.” Journal of the Kansas entomological Society (1985): 169-172.

[5] – Day, Susan D., and J. Roger Harris. “Fertilization of red maple (Acer rubrum) and littleleaf linden (Tilia cordata) trees at recommended rates does not aid tree establishment.” Arboriculture and Urban Forestry 33.2 (2007): 113.

[6] – Hutnick, Russell J., and Harry W. Yawney. 1961. Silvical characteristics of red maple (Acer rubrum). USDA Forest Service, Station Paper 142. Northeastern Forest Experiment Station, Upper Darby, PA. 18 p. Accessed 18DEC2022

[7] – Tremblay, M-F., Yves Mauffette, and Yves Bergeron. “Germination responses of northern red maple (Acer rubrum) populations.” Forest Science 42.2 (1996): 154-159. Accessed 18DEC2022

[8] – Willet N. Wandell. Handbook of Landscape Tree Cultivars. East Prairie Publishing Company, 1989, pp322.

[9] – Larsson, H. C., and P. Jaciw. “Sap and syrup of five Maple species.” Research Report. Ontario Department of Lands and Forests 69 (1967).

[10] – Square, Janet. Wood Profile: Maple. Scroll Saw Woodworking And Craft. Fox Chapel publication, Summer 2020, pp47

[11] – North American Ethnobotany Database. Red Maple. Accessed 18DEC2022.

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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