A samara is often found in large groups on a tree, though not all samaras look alike. One familiar type of samara is the double-winged one found on maple trees (Acer spp.). Ash trees (Fraxinus spp.) produce a samara that features a single elongated wing. Elm trees (Ulmus spp.) produce samaras where the seed is located in the middle of a papery circle. These flowering plants all produce samara fruits after blooming.
What Is a Samara Fruit?
A samara is a type of dry fruit, not a fleshy fruit like an apple or cherry, which has a distinct anatomy: The seeds are surrounded by a papery wing that, when the wind blows, carries the seeds farther away than most other fruit seeds.
Samaras are considered indehiscent fruits, "indehiscent" meaning they don't release their seeds at maturity. Rather, they rely on predators or decomposition to release their seeds. Fruits exist to disperse seeds, which grow new plants and continue this cycle. Some animals such as squirrels are fond of eating these fruits and help disperse seeds to new places. Other plants harness the wind to scatter the seeds. While some samaras produce one samara per fruit, other samara fruits split into two wings, technically two samaras, often called "helicopters" or "whirlybirds," that spin and fall to the ground playfully. The fruit that split into two wings catches the wind easier than a single samara. Trees release the samaras when they are ripe. Some sources say they can fly as far as 330 feet from the original tree.
|Botanical Examples||Acer spp., Fraxinus spp., Ulmus spp., Ptelea trifoliata, Flabellaria paniculata, Ailanthus altissima, Liriodendron tulipifera, Tipuana tipu|
|Common Names||Samara Fruit Trees: Maple trees, Ash trees, Elm trees, Common hoptree, Flabellaria paniculata/a woody African vine), Tree of Heaven, Tulip tree, Tipu tree|
|Plant Type||Flowering plants that produce samara fruits and seeds|
|Mature Size||15 to 90 ft. tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to full shade depending on plant type|
|Soil Type||Generally adaptable|
|Soil pH||Wide range|
|Bloom Time||Early spring or early summer|
|Flower Color||Greenish, greenish white, yellow|
|Hardiness Zones||3-9 (USDA)|
|Native Area||Asia and North America|
Samara Fruit Tree Examples and Care
One example of a tree that produces samara fruit is the Red Maple (Acer rubrum). It is a deciduous tree, native to Eastern North America from Quebec to Minnesota south to Florida and eastern Texas. In northern states, the Red Maple usually grows in wet bottomland, river flood plains, and wet woods. In the midwest, it tends to grow in drier, rocky upland areas. It is very cold hardy in USDA Zones 3 through 9. Spreading 30 to 50 feet wide, it grows 40 to 70 feet tall with a rounded to oval crown. Red maples grow faster than Norway or sugar maples, but slower than silver maples. All emerging new growth in the form of leaves, leafstalks, twigs, flowers, fruit, and fall foliage are red or tinged with red. Flowers are typically red, sometimes yellow, in large clusters, blooming from March to April. After the flowers, come the leaves. The leaves start dark green above and gray green below. They are 2 to 5 inches long with 3 or 5 primary triangular-shaped, toothed, pointed lobes. Samara fruit is also initially reddish producing a two-winged samara.
Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) is another deciduous tree that gives way to samaras. This elm is native to southern Virginia west to Kentucky, southern Indiana and Illinois, and central Missouri; south to central Oklahoma and southeastern Texas; and east to central Florida. It also grows in Maryland. When placed in an open area, branches arch upward to create a rounded crown. In a forested site, the tree grows taller and straighter. Naturally, Winged Elm can be seen growing freely in rock outcrops, dry wooded areas, and fields. Bark is red-brown to ash gray. Leaves have doubly toothed margins. In fall, they turn yellow and in late winter, small red flowers mature in clusters. The tree produces 1/4- to 1/2-inch flattened samara with hairy margins. Other common names for the Winged Elm are Cork Elm, Small Leaf Elm, Wahoo Winged Elm, and Witch Elm. Prune this tree regularly to prevent it from growing multiple trunks.
Common hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) is native to Eastern and central United States, hardy in Zones 4 through 9. This native, deciduous tree is sometimes considered a shrub because it grows a modest 15 to 20 feet tall and wide. The hoptree is dense and rounded, making it an ideal specimen for a flowering hedge. Naturally, it grows in open woods, glades, ravines, thickets, and prairies. Leaves are shiny, dark green, each two to five inches long, turning greenish yellow in autumn. Fragrant, tiny clusters of tiny greenish white flowers bloom in late spring. These clusters of flowers produce clusters of seeds, each seed encased in a thin, winged one-inch samara. Seeds mature in late summer and last through most of winter. The common name of hoptree refers to the prior use of seeds as a substitute for hops. Other common names include wafer ash and stinking ash.
Grow Red Maple and Winged Elm in full sun to part shade. Hoptrees can tolerate full sun but thrive in part shade to full shade.
While Red Maple will tolerate a wide range of soils, it prefers moist, slightly acidic soil that is well-draining. Winged Elm prefers moist to dry conditions in a variety of soil types that contain loam, clay, sand, or rock. Hoptree will also grow in dry to medium well-drained conditions.
Plant Red Maples in a rain garden or another site where it is easy to maintain a medium to wet environment. Give Winged Elms and Hoptrees dry to medium moisture.
Varieties of Trees Producing Samaras
Other trees and shrubs that produce samaras include:
- Common hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata)
- Flabellaria paniculata (a woody African vine)
- Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) Note that this tree is invasive in many areas
- Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)
- Tipu tree (Tipuana tipu), one of the few legumes that produce a samara is the Tipu tree of South America
Harvesting Maple Seeds
Maple seeds are more than a floating toy; they also have a pod with edible seeds inside. Remove the outer covering before eating the seeds from maple trees. When seeds are young and green in spring, they are known to be the most pleasant tasting. Sprinkle them into a salad or stir-fry or mix them into mashed potatoes. Since different varieties of maples produce samaras at different times of the year in certain areas, seeds might be available for harvest and consumption for an extended period. Store the seeds to continue eating them through summer, fall, and perhaps winter if you have enough to last a full year. Roast or boil them if mature seeds taste bitter.
Before eating any herb, plant, or seed, please speak with a professional such as a doctor or medical herbalist for more informed advice specific to your needs.
Common Pests and Diseases
Aphids, borers, scale, and caterpillars are common pests to the Red Maple. Leafhoppers can cause the most substantial damage. Keep an eye out for verticillium wilt, canker, fungal leaf spot, and root rots. Branches are prone to breakage by wind and ice.
Borers, scale, and caterpillars may also attack the Winged Elm. Watch for beetles and leaf miners too. This tree is especially vulnerable to Dutch Elm Disease. Powdery mildew, phloem necrosis, cankers, and leaf spots can also cause issues on stressed trees.