One of the most common trees you may encounter near water is known as Silver Maple. Readily identifiable in Summer by it’s leaf color in which the upper side is green while the underside is a ‘sliver’ or gray color. This feature makes for a beautiful site on a breezy summer day.
I grew up surrounded by these trees on the floodplains of the Mississippi. And you could say it was one of the first species that got me interested in trees, whether it was playing with the ‘helicopters’, germinating the seeds, or even testing my parents patience by transplanting a 3′ sapling into our back yard without permission! But I can share all I’ve learned with you in this profile.
In this article:
- What is Silver Maple
- What are the pros and cons of Silver Maple
- Identification / Characteristics
- How to grow and care for Silver Maple
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect Silver Maple
- Where to buy Silver Maple
- Uses of Silver Maple
- Final thoughts
What is Silver Maple
Silver Maple is a deciduous, medium-sized tree native to North America. Scientifically known as Acer saccharinum, it grows 50-100’ tall in full sun and wet to medium-moist soil. One of the fasted growing trees at can grow 3-7’ per year in optimum conditions. Numerous species of wildlife eat the seeds. 
Although technically a hardwood, it is also known as soft maple (along with Red Maple trees). It grows rapidly and will live for 100-150 years or more. Dominant on the periphery of water ways and lakes, it doesn’t perform as well in interior forests as it is generally overtaken by taller hardwoods such as Black Walnut and Pin Oak.
It is readily identifiable in most locations due to it’s distinct bark or silver-backed leaves, once you can ID this tree you will see it frequently along creeks, rivers, and ponds.
As I was growing up in the bottom lands of the Mississippi River, Silver Maple was one of the most common trees I would see. The streets, yards, and gutters would be filled with thousands of helicopters (seeds with a wing) each Spring, followed by thousands of seedlings some weeks later, particularly along the river banks where there was bare soil or mud.
Native Range of Silver Maple
The native range of Silver Maple covers most of the Midwest and the border of Canada from Manitoba South to Oklahoma and Georgia, and North to Maine, Southern Quebec and New Brunswick.
Silver Maple Reference Table
|Native Range, USDA Zone
|Central North America, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-9
|Early Spring, green to yellow flowers
|50-100′ (15-30 m)
|Spacing / Spread
|25-70′ (8-22 m)
|Full sun to partial shade
|Clay-loam, loam, silt
|Wet to medium-moisture
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts
|Many wood-boring insects, birds, mammals.
Pros and Cons of Silver Maple
Silver Maple has a handsome ovoid crown making it a great shade tree. It can get quite wide at 35-70’, and a pair of Silver Maples placed correctly can provide lots of shade to most homes.
The leaves and wood of Silver Maple are fed on by many insects such as moths and several long-horned beetles. These attract some birds, while numerous other species of birds eat the seeds. In addition to birds, numerous other mammals will feed on the seeds in Spring/Summer. So Silver Maple can attract a wide variety of wildlife to your yard. 
Silver Maple leaves have contrasting colors with the upper side being a dark green while the underside being a silver-like color. This can make them particularly attractive when the leaves are fluttering in the wind.
Mature Silver Maples will drop thousands of seeds each Spring. These will readily germinate if they are kept moist. So, any flower bed with moist soil will likely have new trees each Summer. They are easy to deal with in that they are not deeply rooted, but there could be many of them depending on conditions.
If you have a Silver Maple near a home, your gutters can easily become clogged with the helicopters/seeds. This can be a problem in Spring storms as clogged gutters dumping water to the foundation can cause problems.
Silver Maple is a shallow-rooted tree. When planted in suburban areas, the roots are often exposed.
Due to it’s rapid growth, the wood of Silver Maple isn’t the strongest. Thus they can suffer from wind and snow damage, with branches snapping off.
And I can add some direct personal experience here, as we had several Silver Maples in my yard growing up. And, sure enough during one Spring storm, one of the trunks split right off. I thought it was cool as now I had a great on-the-ground tree-fort for a few days until my Father cut it up.
Identification and Characteristics of Silver Maple
*NOTE – curious if you have a Red Maple or another species? Check out Maple Identification Guide here.
Trunk / Bark
Silver Maple generally has a short broad trunk, or is multi-trunked that branches quickly. It does not form long tall trunks though, which often makes it unsuitable for lumber.
The bark of Silver Maple is gray and scaly, having large flat scales that sometimes curl. Young bark is a light gray color and smooth with small white dots (lenticels).
Silver Maple leaves are opposite (paired) along branches. Leaves are up to 6” long by 4” wide, with deeply divided lobes with serrated margins. Often there are secondary lobes contained within the primary. Leaves have fairly long stems (petioles) that are 3-5” long. In Autumn the leaves will turn a yellow color.
The top side of the leaves are a medium green color while the under side is much lighter, taking on a silvery or white color. The leaves are smooth/hairless, and have noticeable veins.
Silver Maple Leaves turning brown
If you notice the edges or tips of Silver Maple leaves turning brown, this is most likely caused by lack of water. This tree needs moisture, and in drought it won’t be able to transport enough water to the leaves to meet the cooling demand, resulting in a crispy brown edge. Check the soil moisture if you notice this condition, and water appropriately (and deeply).
Clusters of small flowers will for min early Spring, February to May depending on location, and are roughly 1/8”-1/4” diameter. Flowers are green/yellow in color. Trees can be either gender, or have both (dioecious) and even change it’s gender over time. 
Flowers are primarily wind pollinated, although some bees do visit. But not long after pollination of female flowers seeds will begin to form. Seeds are encapsulated within a ‘wing’ that spins as it falls to the ground. Two wings are attached together to form a pair.
Fully formed seeds encapsulated in wings will be approximately 1-2.5” long. The individual ‘fruit’ will approximately ¼” diameter.
When ripe, the wing will turn from green to brown and dry out. It will then fall to the ground in a spinning motion, we always called them ‘helicopters’ because of this dispersal mechanism.
At what age do Silver Maples produce seeds?
Silver Maples can produce seeds as early as 11 years old.
How to save Silver Maple seed
Collect helicopters when they begin to fall to the ground. Seeds germinate fairly quickly after falling, so be quick collect them. Silver Maple seeds cannot be allowed to dry out, or they will lose their viability.
Storage of Silver Maple seed can be tricky, but the best method would be to remove the hull, and gently dry the outer seed coat. Then, place them in a sealed plastic container and refrigerate them.
The root of Silver Maple is wide lateral roots that are quite shallow. They are often exposed in lawns.
Silver Maple Growth Rate
The growth rate of Silver Maple can range from 3-7′ per year depending on available sunlight, moisture, and soil. It is truly one of the fastest growing trees in North America, perhaps second only to Black Locust.
But you should know that if you are planting a stand of trees and wish to include Silver Maple, you should consider waiting 2-3 years before adding it, as it may out compete your other species.
Most Silver Maples are capable of adding ½-1” d.b.h. (diameter at breast height) each year once they reach pole stage. And one specimen has been recording adding 2” per year.
Grow and Care for Silver Maple
Silver Maple will grow best in full sun, which is six hours of direct sunlight per day. It can grow in partial sun, but will no be well formed and could have an irregular crown.
For soil, Silver Maple will grow well in clay-loam, loam, or silt as long as it doesn’t dry out.
Silver Maple grows well in moist soil or medium-moist soil. It tolerates flooding, as I can attest to the number of Silver Maples that were underwater each Spring during the ‘Spring floods’ of the Mississippi.
Silver Maple can be pruned in late Winter / early Spring. You want the crown to be somewhat developed before removing lower branches, as the larger crown will help shade the trunk. If the trunk is not shaded because the tree is too small, dormant buds in the trunk will sprout branches once they are hit with sunlight. Improper pruning may also cause sunscald, which can be damaging to the tree.
How to Grow Silver Maple from Seed
Silver Maple seeds do not require any pre-treatment. They can be germinated immediately upon falling from a tree.
The easiest way to germinate Silver Maple seeds is to simply stick fresh seeds (with hulls) into the soil, so that the seed is even with the soil line.
Fill a suitable container with moist potting soil and stick the seed with hull into the soil, pressing the seed in until it is level with the soil. Alternatively, you can remove/clip the wing off, and plant the seed on the surface by pressing it into the soil, or slightly burying it 1/16” deep (1.5 mm).
Germination will occur within a couple of weeks.
For the fastest seedling development, make sure it is planted in soil that drains well. Seedlings are stunted when grown in constantly wet or flooded soil.
At the end of the first year, you can expect the seedling to grow from 12” tall (30 cm), up to 36” (90 cm) tall. But to achieve these results it is very important that the seedlings receive full sun, and moist, well-draining soil.
Nursery propagation by seed has found that if weeds are mowed, and the site is maintained that trees can reach 12.5’ tall in 5 years. But on sites where weeds are not maintained, trees may only reach 2’ tall. This is primarily due to shading of surrounding vegetation.
Propagating Silver Maple by cuttings
Silver Maple may be propagated by softwood cuttings taken in July or October. Simply cut a twig, leaving at least two nodes and dip it in rooting hormone. Then place this into moist sand in a partial shaded container, and do not let it dry out.
Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Silver Maple
Silver Maple is an incredibly important species for birds. Numerous species of birds feed on the buds or seeds of Silver Maple such as the Bobwhite Quail, Cardinal, Goldfinch, Grouse, Evening Grosbeak, Red Breasted Grosbeak, and Robins. 
Seeds are also eaten by numerous forest dwelling species such as Bear, Chipmunks, Raccoon, Squirrels, Rabbits and Voles/mice.
American beavers also utilize Silver Maple as food and in construction of their dams/dens.
And another curious use of Silver Maple for food is the buds. Squirrels will feed on buds in late Winter / early Spring when other food is scarce.
Silver Maple has also been noted as being a favored nesting site of wood ducks and Goldeneye ducks. 
New growth of Silver Maple trees will be browsed by deer. If you are trying to establish Silver Maple, you should consider protecting your trees with cages/tree-shelters, and possibly bird netting in the winter.
Silver Maple is susceptible to a number of damaging agents (diseases and insects) that can harm the tree. Effects can range from purely cosmetic to death of the tree. Due to the difficulty in successfully identifying and treating tree diseases, the safest course of action is to contact an arborist if you notice something infesting an important shade tree.
But note that the best protection against disease is prevention. A strong healthy tree without open wounds will generally be able to withstand and fight off most or all pathogens. I really have to stress the ‘open wound’ point. Exposed wood allows insects direct contact with the interior of the tree, and that is the vector for many diseases.
Several Fungi can effect Silver Maple. Although the effects are primarily cosmetic, and are generally not fatal to the tree. Gray Spot Mold & Bull’s eye spot will result in defoliation of tree, which can be fatal if it happens repeatedly. Anthracnose, tar spots, and leaf blister fungus also will harm the tree. And it can also be subject to powdery mildew.
If any of these symptoms are noticed, then one should take care to remove all effected leaves in Autumn and burn them (in accordance with local ordinances), or dispose of them. This is because the spores will often overwinter in the leaf litter. 
If a fungal infection is severe and the tree defoliates, you should consider consulting with an arborist to develop a strategy that includes anti-fungal sprays and other measures.
The most severe stem disease for Silver Maple is Verticillium Wilt, which can cause sudden death to the tree. Once symptoms are noticed, effected limbs should be promptly removed. The first symptoms will be a yellowing or wilting of leaves on a limb. Should you suspect your tree is infected with this disease you should promptly consult an arborist.
Now, although it is possible for Verticillium Wilt to infect and kill Silver Maple, it is generally not as common unlike other species of Maple. 
Scale insects can be a cosmetic problem on Silver Maples. You will notice a cottony mass on the underside of branches. These are caused by scale insects. They can be controlled by various oils or insecticides recommended by a local ag extension. 
Where you can buy Silver Maple
The straight species of Silver Maple is not typically sold in big-box nurseries. You will mainly find cultivars and varieties at the larger stores. 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.
I would also suggest investigating bare root suppliers such as coldstreamfarm.net. I have no affiliation with them, but have purchased from them in the past and was completely satisfied.
Varieties of Silver Maple
Due to it’s popularity as a landscape or street tree, many cultivars or varieties of Silver Maple have been recognized.
Hybridization with Red Maple
Since the blooming period of Silver Maple overlaps with that of Red Maple, it is possible to have both trees cross pollinate and hybridize.
Uses of Silver Maple
Landscaping / Shade Tree
Silver Maple can make an excellent shade tree in yards of newly constructed homes. It’s rapid growth rate allows it to establish quickly and start making desirable shade in as little as 10 years. It really can do an excellent job, and can be more desirable than other fast growing species such as Black Locust. But these benefits must be weighed against the cost of the weaker wood (from fast growth). If strength of wood was of concern, you may wish to look to Pin Oak or Hackberry.
Silver Maple will grow well with other trees that grow well in moist to medium-moist soil in full sun. Species such as Swamp White Oak, Pin Oak, Black Walnut, Butternut, Sweet Gum, Sycamore and Northern White Cedar share similar preferred growing conditions.
Some species of flower or shrub that grow as understory species of Silver Maple would include moisture and sun-loving species. Some examples include;
- Swamp Milkweed
- Joe Pye Weed
- White Turtlehead
- Garden Phlox
- Goldenrod (aggressive)
- Blue Vervain
- Hairy Wood Mint
- Lobelia (Cardinal Flower & Great Blue Lobelia)
- Native Hibiscus
Since the trunk of Silver Maple is generally short, it is not used for lumber. Shorter pieces or live edge are available, and it can be turned on a lathe to make bowls. The grain is straight and clear, and quite beautiful.
If one is truly an artist when it comes to woodworking, you can find spalted pieces of maple. Spalting is a fungus that runs through the wood, leaving gorgeous black streaks. You can generally find these in woodpiles that are uncovered, as the fungus needs moisture to work it’s way through the log.
Silver Maple Firewood
Silver Maple does make good firewood though, as although it is not the hottest nor longest burning, it can frequently be found for little to no cost. This is due to the frequent blow-downs that occur.
But it’s straight grain and general ‘weakness’ makes it very easy to split. One often only needs an axe to make clean splits on logs (assuming no knots or crotches).
Native American & Medicinal Uses
There are 33 uses of Silver Maple by 9 Native American Tribes. Medicinal Uses of Silver Maple include the bark as a cough medicine, a venereal aid (gonorrhea), and a wash made into an eyewash and for sores.
Native Americans did use Silver Maple for other items though. The pliable twigs were woven into baskets. The Cherokee also used it to make furniture and as lumber. Finally, many tribes would boil the sap to make sugar.
The sap from Silver Maple can be used and distilled down to make syrup. It received a rating in Ontario as ‘satisfactory’, which is impressive considering it has the lowest sugar content of all maples.
Silver Maple is a great tree with several good uses in a home or landscape. It is one of the best trees to grow near water, particularly if flooding is a concern. It can make an excellent shade tree and is commonly used in home yards even today (my neighborhood has many examples). Although the wood is a bit weaker than trees that grow a bit slower, it is generally limbs falling and not the entire tree. So, spaced appropriately there should be minimal risk.
But if you find yourself wanting to grow some trees very fast, while providing a benefit to the local wildlife, Silver Maple is an excellent choice. The only other native species that can compete with it’s growth rate, Black Locust, will send runners all over your yard. Silver Maple won’t do that. It will self-seed, but if it is an area you mow, this will not be an issue.
 – Gabriel, William J. “Acer saccharinum L. Silver maple.” Silvics of North America 2 (1990): 70-77.
 – John Dickerson. “SILVER MAPLE Acer saccharinum L.“, USDA Plant Fact Sheet. USDA NRCS. 2002 Accessed 06MAR2023.
 – Guy Nesom & Lincoln Moore. “Silver Maple“, USDA NRCS. Plant Guide. 2000. Accessed 06MAR2023.
 – Acer saccharinum, USDA. Accessed 09MAR2023.
 – Webb, D. P., J. van Staden, and P. F. Wareing. “Seed dormancy in Acer: Changes in endogenous cytokinins, gibberellins and germination inhibitors during the breaking of dormancy in Acer saccharum Marsh.” Journal of Experimental Botany 24.1 (1973): 105-116.
 – Douglas, Sharon M. “Common diseases of maple.” The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (2009).
 – Hoitink, H. A. J., T. D. Sydnor, and C. L. Wilson. “Resistance of maple cultivars and species to Verticillium wilt-a preliminary report.” Research Circular, Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center 246 (1979): 46-47.
 – Saeki, Ikuyo, et al. “Comparative phylogeography of red maple (Acer rubrum L.) and silver maple (Acer saccharinum L.): impacts of habitat specialization, hybridization and glacial history.” Journal of Biogeography 38.5 (2011): 992-1005.
 – Silver Maple. North American Ethnobotany Databse. Accessed 12MAR2023.
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