How to Grow and Care for 'Red Sunset' Maple

Fast-growing and hardiest of the red maples, its fiery red fall foliage amazes

Red sunset maple tree branches with green three-lobed leaves in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

'Red Sunset' maple is the trademarked name for a popular 'Franksred' cultivar of the North American red maple species (Acer rubrum). This 40-to-50-foot cultivar is grown for the richness and reliability of its fall foliage color, turning from green to brilliant red, and for its cold hardiness. Plant it in a location with at least six to eight hours of sun with at least 40 feet of width to accommodate its adult size. It prefers rich, moist, and well-drained soil with an acidic pH.

Red Sunset maple is a moderately fast grower that typically adds 12 to 24 inches per year. It is best planted in the late fall or the early spring. Its pros are its beautiful color, cold hardiness, and fast growth; its cons are it will not grow well in alkaline soil or dry, drought-like conditions with overwhelming heat. It also tends to make a mess once it matures—dropping flowers in spring, helicopter seeds in summer, and many leaves in the fall.

 Common Name Red Sunset maple
 Botanical Name Acer rubrum 'Franksred'
Family Sapindaceae
 Plant Type Deciduous tree
 Mature Size 40–50 ft. tall, 30–40 ft. wide
 Sun Exposure Full, partial
 Soil Type Rich, moist but well-drained
 Soil pH Acidic to slightly acidic (4.5 to 6.5)
 Bloom Time Spring
 Flower Color Red on the female, yellow on the male (not showy)
 Hardiness Zones 3–8 (USDA)
 Native Area North America

Red Sunset Maple Care

Here are the main care requirements for growing a Red Sunset maple tree:

  • Plant it in the spring or fall.
  • Needs six to eight hours of full or partial sun.
  • Prefers soil that is enriched, moist, well-draining, and acidic.
  • Layer 2 to 3 inches of mulch over the root bed to keep the roots cool, moist, and insulated.
Red sunset maple tree with red leaves and circular bench around trunk

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Red sunset maple tree branch with reddish-green three-lobes leaves in sunlight

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Red sunset maple tree with dark brown bark and sprawling branches with light green leaves

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Red sunset maple tree branch with green three-lobed leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova


Give Red Sunset maple full sun at the northern end of its range to promote optimal fall leaf color. At the southern end of its range, it can take partial shade.


Red Sunset maple likes moist soil rich in nutrients with a slightly acidic pH value. As with any tree, getting a soil analysis to determine if the site suits this species is a good idea. Soil amendment and regular mulching with an acidifying material, such as peat or pine needles, can help acidify soils that need it.

While this tree likes moist soil and will even tolerate being in standing water for short periods, it will perform better in soil that drains well over the long run.


Red Sunset maple has above-average water needs, and its soil must be kept evenly moist. About 1 inch of water each week, through a combination of rainfall and irrigation, should be considered the minimum. A low-lying area that is frequently moist can be a good spot for this tree. A thick layer of mulch over the root zone can help preserve soil moisture. Ensure the mulch does not come into contact with the trunk, which can invite pest and disease problems.

Temperature and Humidity

Red Sunset (USDA zone 3-8) is cold hardier than other red maples, surviving temperatures as low as -40 degrees Fahrenheit. Red Sunset is also heat resistant if it has enough water, but you must keep this tree moist during drought periods. If this tree does not have enough water during a high heat period, its leaves will burn.


Red Sunset should be fed with a granular slow-release fertilizer at planting time, which is less likely to burn the tender young roots. Make sure to blend in the fertilizer with the fill soil thoroughly. After that, feed Red Sunset annually in early spring with a fertilizer for acid-loving plants.

Types of Red Maple

The Red Sunset cultivar was developed by selecting particular red maple Acer rubrum bred to have desirable traits, which was then propagated by root cuttings for commercial sale. Virtually all commercially sold Red Sunset maples are vegetative root clones of that first tree, carefully selected in 1966 by J. Frank Schmidt and Son company in Oregon.

Red Sunset is one cultivar among many developed from the native red maple. Red Sunset has smoothish gray bark that gradually darkens with age, and the leaves have the familiar 3- or 5-lobe maple structure, dark green on the top surface and gray-green on the bottom. Other popular red maple cultivars include:

  • 'October Glory' is similar to Red Sunset but grows somewhat faster.
  • 'Autumn Blaze' has a nicely rounded form and lovely, long-lasting orange-red fall foliage, hybrid crossed with red maple and silver maple.
  • 'Burgundy Bell' is a smaller tree with unusually dark purple-red fall leaves.
  • 'Scarlet Sentinel' is a columnar variety, a fast-growing tree with yellow-orange fall foliage.
  • 'Schlesingeri' is a fast-growing variety with deep-red autumn leaves that remain on the tree for an exceptionally long time.

The advantage of growing cultivars of red maple rather than the native tree is that the performance of the former is more predictable. The cultivars achieve the desired red fall color more reliably than the native plants, which may display yellow instead of red foliage under certain conditions.


Prune these trees when they're young early to establish a central leader. After that, the only mandatory regular pruning necessary for Red Sunset maple is to remove damaged or diseased limbs as you notice them. And it's also a good idea to remove branches that create very narrow angles with the trunk and side branches, as these crotches can be notoriously weak and subject to wind damage.

All red maples are sensitive to pruning, so it's best to avoid cutting large branches if possible. Pruning is best done in late summer through mid-winter, as the trees are likely to bleed sap if pruned at other times. Make your cuts just outside the branch's collar, making it easier for the tree to heal its wounds.

Propagating Red Sunset Maple

Growing new plants from root cuttings is a difficult propagation method; it is rarely attempted. It's better to try to reproduce a tree through seeds. But be forewarned that the result may not be an exact match to the parent tree.

How to Grow Red Sunset Maple From Seed

If there are other red maples in your area (native species or other named cultivars), cross-pollination may create seeds that produce a different-looking tree. But if you want to try seed propagation, here's how to do it:

  1. Collect seeds from a mature red maple tree in late spring or early summer. Select seed pods that are beginning to turn brown and break them open to remove the seeds.
  2. Fill a well-draining 8-inch pot with a commercial potting mix. Plant the seeds 1 to 2 inches deep, moisten the soil mix, then place the pot in a sunny location.
  3. Water the pot regularly, keeping it uniformly moist but not soggy. The seeds usually germinate and sprout within 10 days.
  4. Continue growing the seedling tree in a sunny location until planting time. Seeds started in spring will often be ready for landscape planting in the fall. Or, you can place the pot in a sheltered outdoor location (a cold frame, for example) through the winter, then continue to grow it for another season before planting it.
  5. When planting in the ground, plant it at the same depth it is growing in its nursery container, in a large hole well prepared with any necessary amendments—which can be especially important if the soil is not sufficiently acidic.


Red maples are extremely cold-hardy trees that need no protection against the cold through winter. But young trees have relatively thin bark, so protection with tree guard fabric will help prevent sunscald and frost cracks. After several years, this protection will no longer be necessary.

Guard against damage from deer, rabbits, and other gnawing animals by protecting the trunks of young trees with hardware fabric or another type of guard for the first few years as the tree becomes established.

With established trees, it's a good idea to withhold feeding as fall approaches, as the tree naturally leans toward dormancy. Any serious pruning needed is best done during the tree's dormancy period before the sap begins to flow in late winter.

Common Pests and Plant Diseases

Among Red Sunset maple's worst pests are aphids, borers, caterpillars, leafhoppers, and scale. Its chief disease problems are canker, fungal leaf spot (including anthracnose), root rot, and verticillium wilt.

The pests can often be eradicated by using neem oil. Unfortunately, the disease problems are not as easy to solve (after the fact) and are best addressed through prevention. Some preventative techniques include optimal site selection, spacing to promote airflow, and a proper watering regimen.

How to Get Red Sunset Maple to Bloom

This is not a tree grown for its flowers, so there is no reason to fret if your tree does not produce small tufts of red flowers in spring. Young trees typically do not flower and produce seeds until they are four to eight years old, and the appearance of flowers and seeds marks the point where the tree becomes messy, with flowers and seeds that must be raked up each spring.

Common Problems With Red Sunset Maple

Red Sunset is a good, somewhat problem-free tree for growing in your landscape. Red Sunset other red maple cultivars are somewhat less susceptible to problems than the native species, but you still may notice some of these issues:

Fall Color Is Disappointing

Though Red Sunset maple trees offered commercially are root clones that generally will produce a reliably deep red fall color, this is not guaranteed to occur yearly. Unusual weather conditions can cause your tree to display disappointing yellow foliage during some years. It's also possible that your tree was not the pure clone it was advertised to be. The expected fall color for Red Sunset can range from orange-yellow to a deep purple-red, and it's not uncommon for the color display to vary from year to year.

Leaves Are Covered With Dark Spots

This symptom is generally a sign of infection from anthracnose or another fungal disease. While they are unsightly, leaf spot diseases are not very harmful to the tree, and it's usually best to avoid treatment. Cool, wet spring weather is more likely to bring on leaf spot diseases, and as affected leaves drop, the tree's canopy may become relatively sparse until it recovers. In some climates, anthracnose and other fungal diseases are a nearly annual occurrence.

Branch Tips Are Dying Back

New tip growth that immediately turns black and then falls from the tree is a condition known as scorch, which for red maples is usually caused by a lack of moisture rising up to the new growth from the roots. Red maples need plenty of spring moisture as this new growth develops.

Dieback of entire branches, usually beginning at the top of the tree, is sometimes a problem with maples. However, it occurs more often with sugar maples (Acer saccharum) or sugar maple hybrids than with red maple. Tree dieback usually is the result of widespread poor cultural practices.

Surface Roots Are Disrupting the Lawn

Most maples have relatively shallow roots that can eventually disrupt a smooth lawn or even cause sidewalks or driveways to heave. This is why it is best to plant them well away from any paved surfaces. If a maturing tree begins to disrupt your lawn with its exposed roots, the best strategy may be to convert the area beneath the tree canopy to a planting area covered with a good layer of mulch that hides the exposed roots.

  • How do you choose between Red Sunset maple and Autumn Blaze maple?

    The two trees are hybrid maples and different species of maples, but both have bright red leaf coloration in the fall. Red Sunset is a trademarked cultivar of a Franksred red maple, and Autumn Blaze is a trademarked name for a Freeman's maple, a hybrid formed from red maple and silver maple.

    Red Sunset (USDA zone 3-8) is more cold hardy than Autumn Blaze (USDA zone 4-8). Red Sunset leaves are larger and require more water; Autumn Blaze requires more acidic soil (6.5 pH) and less frequent watering. Red Sunset also grows slower (up to 2 feet per year) than Autumn Blaze (more than 2 feet per year).

  • How should Red Sunset maple be used in the landscape?

    Red Sunset maple needs a lot of water—a trait that makes it a logical choice for large rain garden areas. It is also suitable as a specimen for the front lawn and works well as a small shade tree.

    This tree is ill-suited for use as a tree to line a driveway, a sidewalk, or a masonry walkway. It has shallow roots that can damage such structures if planted too close to them.

    The mature size the tree attains (a manageable 40 to 50 feet) is an important consideration for homeowners with small yards who need assurance that a tree will not overwhelm their properties.

  • How long does a Red Sunset maple live?

    On average, all red maples can be expected to live 80 to 100 years, but there are documented cases of 200-year-old specimens.

  • Is there any way to improve the fall color?

    A maple's dramatic color change is the tree's reaction to cooler temperatures, which causes the tree's green chlorophyll to break down and migrate to the tree's roots. With green chlorophyll gone, leaf sugars and other compounds come to the forefront, giving the tree its brilliant fall color. Cold (but not freezing nights) and bright sunny days are the best environment for producing good fall color.

    To maximize fall leaf color, keep your tree well-watered until late summer, but allow it to experience mild drought as fall begins. Also, begin withholding fertilizer in the fall. This mild stress boosts color.