How to Grow and Care for Red Maple Trees

Fast-Growing Trees With Stunning Fall Colors

red maple tree with brilliant foliage

The Spruce / Autumn Wood

The red maple (Acer rubrum) is a tree native to North America and is a member of the Sapindaceae (soapberry) family. It is the fastest-growing tree in the Eastern United States, growing up to 70 feet tall at a rate of 18 inches per year. In the northern U.S., red maples are usually found in wet bottomlands or moist woods. Further south, it may grow in drier, rockier areas. Red maple trees live between 80 to 100 years when properly cared for.

Red maple trees are named for their rich, highly-desirable bright red foliage that develops in the autumn. The leaves aren't red all year; they're green in spring and summer, but the leaf stalk, twigs, flowers, and samaras are also reddish. It's a popular choice for yards, giving beautiful color, and shade, in a relatively short time. Its reasonably easy care makes it a landscaping mainstay.

Red maples are often confused with a different species, the Japanese red maple tree. The Japanese red maple leaves have five to seven "long fingers" that appear more handlike than Acer rubrum. One way to identify red maple trees is by their lobes—usually three to five shorter lobes. More than 20 cultivars of red maple trees differ in fall foliage colors, height, or leaf shape. It's also not as messy as Norway or silver maples.

Red maples are not toxic to humans, dogs, or cats but are toxic to horses and ponies.

Common Name Red maple, swamp maple, water maple, Drummond red maple, scarlet maple, Carolina red maple, trident red maple, soft maple
Botanical Name Acer rubrum
Family Sapindaceae
Plant Type Tree
Mature Size 40-70 ft. tall, 30 -50 ft. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Sandy, clay, well-drained
Soil pH Acidic
Bloom Time Spring
Flower Color Red
Hardiness Zones 3-9 (USDA)
Native Area North America
Toxicity Toxic to horses and ponies
foliage changing on a red maple tree
​The Spruce / Autumn Wood 
closeup of red maple foliage
​The Spruce / Autumn Wood 
sugar maple and red maple trees
The Spruce / Autumn Wood 

Red Maple Care

The red maple is relatively easy to care for and does well throughout all seasons. Its red color is not only evident in fall but also in the spring and summer. The tree is tall, but its canopy is relatively low, so you should plant it where height and width clearance isn't a concern. The red maple requires full or partial light, well-drained, moist soil, and occasional pruning. You should select a naturally damp area to plant your tree, requiring frequent and attentive watering.

Buying a red maple from a high-quality nursery will limit the need to prune throughout the tree's life and will usually guarantee brighter foliage. The tree transplants well at any age and tends to grow quickly. Be mindful of the conditions of your winters and summers when choosing to plant a red maple and its location on your property.

Light

Red maples flourish in full sun, meaning at least six hours per day, or partial sun for four to six hours daily.

Soil

Red maples need well-drained, sandy, loamy acidic soil. The tree doesn't grow well in alkaline or salty conditions. Red maples grown in alkaline soil will yield pale leaves and suffer stunted growth.

Water

Red maples prefer moist soil but will grow in dry soils provided adequate, regular irrigation (slow, deep watering is ideal). Once planted, ensure the soil remains moist but be careful not to overwet the ground, as it can stunt growth or damage the tree.

Temperature and Humidity

The red maple can survive in dry and moist areas ranging from dry ridges to bogs. It can grow in mountainous regions, swampy regions, and along streams. While the tree does best in cooler weather, it is found as far north as humid Newfoundland and as south as the dry-heated Carolinas.

Fertilizer

Fertilization is usually unnecessary, but a general-purpose fertilizer applied in spring is sufficient when needed. The best fertilizers for red maples are rich in nitrogen. Use a three-inch layer of mulch around the tree's base to help the soil hold moisture.

How Fast Do Red Maple Trees Grow?

As far as trees go, red maples mature relatively fast. They are one of the faster trees to provide substantial shade quickly. These plants average about 12 to 18 inches of height per year. On average, they reach between 40 and 60 feet and can reach that height within 25 years.

Types of Red Maple Trees

Pruning

Pruning typically isn't necessary, but you can remove crowded branches to avoid narrow angles between the trunk and to create the appearance of more substantial, wider angles. The red maple is very sensitive to pruning, so generally, you should avoid cutting branches larger than a few inches in diameter. You should make cuts outside the branch collar to help the tree close cutting wounds. It's best to prune at the end of summer or fall, as the tree tends to bleed sap when pruned early in the growing season.

Propagating Red Maples

You can propagate a red maple easily using cuttings. It's best to take cuttings in late spring or early summer. Here's how to propagate:

  1. Cut a 6-8 inch branch that carries an undeveloped bud or light leaf growth.
  2. Use shears to clip off the leaves.
  3. Soak the cutting in warm water for 20 minutes.
  4. Dip the cutting in a rooting hormone powder.
  5. Fill a planting pot with moss and sand and make a shallow hole.
  6. Place the cut end into the hole and firm the planting medium around the cutting.
  7. Secure wire, sticks, or bamboo around the cutting to promote upright growth.
  8. Cover with a clear piece of plastic to retain moisture.
  9. Remove the plastic when new growth is visible, and relocate the pot to a sunny window.

How to Grow Red Maples From Seeds

  1. Add soil to a growing pot with at least an 8-inch diameter.
  2. Choose a branch with browning seeds, extract them, and plant them into your pot.
  3. Place the seeds 1-2 inches below the soil's surface.
  4. Keep your pot under full sun and water frequently.

Overwintering

Red maple trees usually do well throughout the winter. Leaf loss is normal, and you should not fertilize the tree during this time. You can prepare your tree for the winter by providing it with plentiful water and using mulch to retain moisture and stimulate the roots. You can also cover the tree with a tarp or burlap for extra protection during heavy snow. If your tree is small or young enough to be potted, you can place it in an unheated garage. Red maples can handle cold temperatures down to 15 °F, so consider the typical winter weather in your area before choosing to plant a red maple.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Red maples are susceptible to several pests and diseases. Common diseases include verticillium wilt, anthracnose, leaf spot, tar spot, and powdery mildew. The tree can suffer infestations from insects such as gall mites, leafhoppers, aphids, cankerworms, and mapleworms. One of the most effective ways to prevent disease and pests is to rake fallen leaves often and to monitor your tree closely for signs of infestation.

Common Problems With Red Maples

The main issues with red maple trees are weak structure and vulnerability to verticillium wilt and pests.

Verticillium wilt

This disease causes browning, wilting, and leaf loss. It gradually spreads throughout the tree, and the resulting excess of fallen leaves can negatively affect its growth. While sometimes challenging to avoid, verticillium wilt can be controlled by fertilizing and pruning damaged leaves and branches.

Weak structure

Red maples are prone to cracking bark and overcrowding branches. This leads to susceptibility to damage in spring storms. You can help protect your tree from damage with light pruning and cabling.

Black Spots on Leaves

Your red maple may develop black leaves in the spring due to foliar disease. This causes leaf-dropping, which affects tree growth and can foster pests.

FAQ
  • What plants are similar to red maples?

    The sugar maple is similar to the red maple, with a few key differences. The red maple is a soft tree, while the sugar maple is hard. They grow yellow or orange leaves and bear brown buds. A sugar maple's bark is difficult to peel off.

  • Can red maples grow indoors?

    You can grow red maple trees indoors if you can control their growth. Due to their height, the tree's development must be intentionally stunted to fit them in your home.

  • How far from my house should I plant a red maple tree?

    Since a red maple tree can grow up to 50 feet wide, it's best to keep its growing limbs in mind and plan to position it at least 50 feet away.

  • What is special about a red maple tree?

    A red maple tree has many admirable qualities, including its rapid growth, ease of care, bright flowers and fruit, its production of maple syrup, and beautiful fall color.

Article Sources
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  1. Toxic and Non-Toxic Plants. ASPCA.