As the present series of articles on various kinds of trees for fall color demonstrates, landscaping enthusiasts have many options for achieving colorful yards in autumn. Yet perhaps nothing else in Eastern North America is as intimately associated with the fall-foliage season as are the different types of maple trees. Below are some of the best varieties from which you may choose for your fall color design. I also present a type worthy of our attention for the specialized use to which it is put in the landscape, as well as a native suited to small yards and shaded conditions.
Red Maple Trees
The fall foliage of red maples (Acer rubrum spp.) unfortunately sometimes makes a liar out of the trees' common name. The dirty little secret is that the color of its autumn leaves is sometimes yellow, depending on conditions (even its alternate common name, "swamp maple" is something of a misnomer because its wild habitat is not restricted to swampy areas). That is why it is best to stick with cultivars known for their fall color consistency, such as 'Autumn Blaze'. If you want red fall foliage, I would also suggest purchasing Acer rubrum 'Red Sunset,' a tree that will reach about 50 feet in height, with a spread of a little less than that. This red maple tree grows best in zones 4-9 in full sun to partial shade, where the soil pH is acidic and the ground provides good drainage. It does, however, tolerate clayey soil.
Even relatively consistent cultivars such as Red Sunset maple trees, however, are at the mercy of the weather. The intensity of fall foliage color can be lessened due to extreme summer heat and drought. And you are not even out of the woods once fall arrives. Optimum fall foliage is dependent upon sunny days and crisp nights at the beginning of the autumn season.
Sugar Maple Trees
Sugar maple trees (Acer saccharum) should be grown in zones 3-8, in an area of your yard that is well-drained and gets full to partial sun. Famous as the source of "maple syrup," sugar maple trees can reach 80 feet or more in height, with a spread of up to 60 feet. Sugar maples have a fall foliage color range from yellow to orange to red. Again, fall foliage color will vary from year to year and place to place, depending on many factors.
Silver and Norway Maple Trees
Norway maple trees (Acer platanoides) adapt well to many soil types and environmental conditions. In fact, they adapt too well, as they have become an invasive plant in North America; substitute with sugar maple trees or red maple trees, which, in my opinion, boast superior beauty.
A reason for the widespread use of Norway maples as shade trees in urban areas across the U.S. is that they tolerate pollution better than many trees. Fall foliage color is yellow. Zones 3-7. It reaches an approximate size of 50 feet x 50 feet. Norway maples do best in full sun and well-drained soil.
Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is another tree that I do not recommend. It too has yellow fall foliage, but it is an altogether unappealing pale shade of yellow. On top of that, this type has weak limbs that are prone to storm damage. Two of its few good points are that it is a fast-growing shade tree and tolerates wet soil. Grow it in full sun in growing zones 3-9.
Amur: Another Invasive
Amur maple trees (Acer ginnala 'Flame') are grown in zones 2-8 and are a compact alternative to the specimens described above, attaining a maximum size of only about 20 feet x 20 feet. Like the Norways, however, they are considered invasive. They are of Asian origin. Although they will tolerate light shade, Amur maple trees achieve their best fall color if you make an effort to ensure they get full sun. The effort will pay off handsomely: their fall foliage color is a brilliant red.
Also from Asia originally and also bearing red fall foliage is the paperbark maple (Acer griseum). Most authorities I've consulted, however, do not list it as invasive. Its common name alludes to the fact that its peeling bark is considered ornamental, rather like the bark on some types of birch trees.
Moosewood: A Smaller Specimen That Is a Shade-Lover
Striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) is native to the northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada. It is also called "moosewood," because moose eat it, as do deer, rabbits, porcupines, and beavers. This is a good native choice if you are seeking a small tree for fall-foliage color since it attains a maximum height of just 30 feet. It can easily be kept shorter than that by pruning; indeed, you can grow it as a shrub if you wish. Its leaves turn a nice yellow in fall. The primary common name, "striped maple" refers to the white stripes that run vertically up the green bark of the trunk of the tree when it is young. This is an understory tree in the wild and needs to be planted in a shady spot in the landscape. For soil, a sandy loam is best, since it requires good drainage.
I mentioned in my opening that one type of maple has a highly specialized use in the landscape. I was referring to the hedge maple (Acer campestre), which, as its common name suggests, is used in (tall) hedges. Hedge maples are valued not so much for their fall foliage as for their growth habit and the fact that they are tolerant of compacted soil and pollution. In terms of growth habit, their branching pattern is dense and begins far down on the trunk; they are slow-growers. Put all these facts together, and it is easy to see how Acer campestre, with a little judicious pruning (they can reach a height of 35 feet if left unchecked), could be an ideal choice where a tall hedge is required to screen one's property along a roadside.
View my best fall foliage pictures for more photos of maple trees. Also note that I offer a separate article on Japanese maple trees, which I treat as a separate class. Not interested in Acer species? Read about the most colorful trees for fall here and acquaint yourself with other types.