Red Maple Plant Profile

A Hardy and Beautiful Addition to Your Property

Red maple tree

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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. 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.

Botanical Name Acer rubrum
Common Names Red maple, swamp maple, water maple, Drummond red maple, scarlet maple, Carolina red maple, trident red maple, and soft maple
Plant Type Deciduous tree
Mature Size 40 to 70 feet tall (occasionally taller) with a spread of 30 to 50 feet
Sun Exposure Full to partial sun
Soil Type Adaptable; sandy to clay
Soil pH 4.5 to 6.5
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Red
Hardiness Zones 3 to 9
Native Area Eastern American deciduous forest

How to Grow the Red Maple

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.

From March to May, small red flowers appear. The reddish "helicopter" fruit/seed pods appear in early spring before leaves flesh out. The leaves are two to five 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. 

Pruning is rarely necessary, but you should 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. 

Light

Red maples can flourish in full sun but can also tolerate partial shade.

Soil

The tree prefers acidic to neutral soils, and won't do well in alkaline conditions. Red maples grown in alkaline soil will yield pale leaves and stunted growth. While red maple can live in a range of soils, it cannot tolerate salt.

Water

Red maples prefer somewhat moist soil but will grow fine in dry soils provided you are willing to irrigate them regularly (slow, deep watering is the ideal). 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. 

Temperature and Humidity

Red maple can survive in both dry and moist areas ranging from dry ridges to bogs. It can grow on mountainous areas, swampy areas, and along streams. While it does require some cooler weather, it is found as far north as Newfoundland and as far south as the Carolinas.

Fertilizer

Fertilization is usually not necessary, but when needed, a general-purpose fertilizer applied in spring is sufficient. Use a three-inch layer of mulch to help soil hold moisture.

Varieties of Red Maple

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 habits before making a selection for planting in the yard. Fall colors will be especially outstanding on the 'Autumn Flame' (a red and silver maple hybrid), October Glory, and Red Sunset varieties. A few other popular varieties include:

  • Autumn Blaze: This tree has a rounded form and produces beautiful, long-lasting, orange-red fall foliage.
  • Burgundy Bell: A smaller tree, Burgandy Bell produces unusual burgundy-red fall leaves.
  • Scarlet Sentinel: This columnar variety is a fast-grower with yellow-orange fall foliage.
  • Schlesingeri: A faster-growing variety, Schlesingeri produces long-lasting, deep-red autism leaves. 

Common Pests, Diseases, and Concerns

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 avoid using it as a 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 by lawnmowers and weed trimmers.