Plant Profile: Red Maple Tree (Acer rubrum)

A Hardy and Beautiful Addition to Your Property

Red maple tree

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Red maple trees are aptly named for the gorgeous bright red foliage (or sometimes orange or yellow) that appears in fall. This, along with its fairly minimal needs, makes it a favorite landscape plant over much of North America. Regionally, the tree is sometimes known as swamp maple, water maple, Drummond red maple, scarlet maple, Carolina red maple, trident red maple and soft maple.

Description of the Red Maple

Red maples typical grow 40 to 70 feet tall (occasionally taller) with a spread of 30 to 50 feet. Their overall shape is oval or round. Red maples grow well in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9 but tend to be shorter in the southern part of that range. Several cultivars are available that grow smaller, ideal for use in smaller urban yards. Red maple has thick roots that tend to grow close to the surface of the ground, sometimes posing problems for mowing. The roots can buckle sidewalks.

From March to May, small red flowers appear. The trees can be either dioecious (exhibiting either all male or all female characteristics) or monoecious (both male and female characteristics appearing on a single tree). The reddish "helicopter" fruit/seed pods appear in early spring before leaves flesh out.

The leaves are 2 to 5 inches long, with the classic 3- to 5-lobed structure common to maples. As they first unfurl in spring the leaves have reddish highlights, changing to green as they open. Unlike silver maples, the spaces between lobes on red maples are relatively shallow in depth. The leaves are dark green on the top, with grayish bottom surfaces. Leaf margins are toothed, with pointed tips. Most varieties turn a bright crimson red in fall, but some cultivars exhibit orange or yellow autumn foliage. 

Botanical Information

Red maple (Acer rubrum) is a native tree in eastern and north-central U.S. and a member of the Sapindaceae (soapberry) family. The U.S. Forest Service has identified red maple as the most prevalent tree in the eastern U.S. It grows faster than Norway or sugar maple, but considerably slower than silver maple, making it a better choice in urban landscaping. In the northern part of its range, red maple is usually found in wet bottomlands or moist woods, but further south it may be seen in drier rocky areas. 

In the right conditions, red maple is a long-lived tree, reaching maturity in 70 to 80 years and surviving as long as 150 years. Red maple is sometimes used commercially for maple syrup production, and its wood is suitable for furniture-grade lumber. 

Red maple is very easy to grow and cultivate, and dozens of different cultivars are available commercially for landscape use. Homeowners should carefully research fall foliage colors and growth habit before making a selection for planting in the yard. 

Landscape Uses

This tree works well for adding four-season interest to your yard. The reddish color is not only evident in fall, but also in the spring flowers and stems that are reddish in winter. If you're hoping for a tree with bright foliage, it's best to either buy the tree in the fall (so you can see its coloring in person) or buy from a local nursery that can give you specific information about the tree you're considering. Fall colors will be especially outstanding on the 'Autumn Flame (a red and silver maple hybrid), October Glory, and Red Sunset varieties.

Growing Red Maple

Red maples prefer somewhat moist soil but will grow fine in dry soils provided you are willing to irrigate them regularly. Plant them in full sun to partial shade. The tree prefers acid to neutral soils, and won't do well in alkaline conditions. 

Once established, make sure the soil remains moist—a layer of organic mulch around the base of the tree will help. Make sure the tree gets a deep watering each week, either by irrigation or by rainfall; do not let the soil dry out. 

Fertilization is usually not necessary, but when needed, a general-purpose fertilizer applied in spring is sufficient. Pruning is rarely necessary, but do remove branches to avoid very narrow angles between trunk and branches as wide angles will be stronger.  When you do prune, do it at the end of summer or in autumn; the tree tends to bleed sap when pruned early in the growing season. 

Problems

There are no serious insect or disease problems with red maple but they are occasionally susceptible to verticillium wilt, anthracnose, cankers, leaf spot, or tar spot.  Aphids, borers, and scale may appear as insect pests. In drought conditions, the trees may exhibit leaf scorch.

Red maple doesn't tolerate street salt or soil compaction very well, so be avoid using it as boulevard or street tree. 

Be wary of damaging surface roots and bark with lawn equipment. The bark on red maple is relatively thin, and young trees can be damaged if they by lawn mowers and weed trimmers.