11 Trees with Helicopter Seeds (Samara Fruit)

Red Maple, Winged Elm, Tree of Heaven, and more

Japanese maple tree branch with red helicopter seeds and orange and yellow leaves closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Samara fruit, also known as helicopter seeds, are beloved by many playful gardeners and nature lovers. These papery winged seeds can make for good toys and snacks. A samara is a type of dry fruit, not a fleshy fruit like an apple or cherry. The seeds are surrounded by a papery wing that, when the wind blows, carries the seeds farther away than most other fruit seeds.

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. Here are 11 trees and shrubs that produce helicopter seeds.

  • 01 of 11

    Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

    Red Maple Tree with Samara Fruit / Helicopter Seeds

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    Red Maple (Acer rubrum) is a native tree in the eastern and north-central U.S. which grows quicker than Norway or sugar maple but much slower than silver maple. Spreading 30 to 50 feet wide, it grows 40 to 70 feet tall with a rounded-to-oval crown. Red maples are chosen for their stunning bright red, or sometimes orange or yellow, fall foliage. Flowers are also usually red, sometimes yellow, blooming in large clusters from March to April. Leaves appear dark green above and gray green below. Samara fruits emerge in a reddish color, each producing a two-winged helicopter seed.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Red, sometimes yellow
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Adaptable; sandy to clay
  • 02 of 11

    Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)

    Silver maple tree producing samara fruit/helicopter seeds in Bethel Park, Pennsylvania, United States

    Patricia Toth McCormick / Getty Images

    Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) grows about 2 feet or more per year, reaching 50 to 80 feet tall depending on the location and 35 to 50 feet wide. While they are moderately drought tolerant, silver maples are especially popular for their ability to live in standing water for long periods of time. Often planted along river banks or edges of other waterways to control erosion, these trees can tolerate high water levels in spring and receding water in midsummer. Clusters of red, yellow, and silver flower clusters bloom in early spring. Their winged seed pairs appear prolifically and will quickly drop and sprout in any open soil.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Bloom Color: Red, yellow, and silver
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Moist, slightly acidic
  • 03 of 11

    Norway Maple/Harlequin Maple (Acer platanoides)

    Norway maple tree flowers in spring and gives way to helicopter seeds

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    Norway Maple (Acer platanoides) is also known as Harlequin Maple. This non-native is an invasive species, easily spreading by seed into native woodlands. It looks similar to the native sugar maple tree, but spreads faster and more invasively due to its ability to tolerate shade. Growing up to 60 feet tall, this large deciduous tree creates a dense canopy that steals light from native maples. May-blooming flowers appear as flat-topped upright, yellowish-green clusters with green leaves. Green foliage turns to yellow in the fall.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 7
    • Bloom Color: Yellowish green
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained clay or loam

    Warning

    Norway Maple is an invasive species that poses a threat to other maples.

  • 04 of 11

    Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)

    Japanese maple tree branch with purple leaves and green helicopter seeds

    The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

    Beloved for its beautiful foliage, the Japanese maple tree (Acer palmatum) produces leaves with five to nine distinct palmate lobes. Depending on the variety, they may come in green or red. Leaves in autumn turn to brilliant red, orange, yellow, or purple. Some varieties have wide lobes while others are more finely dissected and look lacy. Japanese maple flowers are small, in red or purple, giving way to half-inch-long samara fruit. The average size of this tree is 15 to 25 feet tall and wide. The shape is usually round while some varieties offer a weeping shape.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 5 to 9
    • Color Varieties: Red, orange, yellow, or purple
    • Sun Exposure: Filtered sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Moist, well-drained, slightly acidic
    Continue to 5 of 11 below.
  • 05 of 11

    Winged Elm (Ulmus alata)

    Winged elm tree (Wahoo tree) branches with new spring leaves

    Tamara Harding / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) is another deciduous tree that gives way to samaras. The tree is relatively small, growing to a humble height of 40 to 60 feet. Branches arch upward, creating an attractive rounded crown in open sites, while the tree grows taller and straighter in forests. Bark is red-brown to ash-gray (the latter pictured above). Doubly toothed leaves are small and oval, of a dark green color with paler hairy undersides. They turn yellow in fall and produce small red flower clusters in late winter. Samaras are flattened with hairy margins.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 6 to 9
    • Bloom Color: Red
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Moist to dry conditions in loam, clay, sand, or rock
  • 06 of 11

    Common hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata)

    Common hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) fruits
    Mature seeds producing samaras

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    Common hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata) is sometimes considered a shrub as it grows only 15 to 20 feet tall and wide. Dense and rounded, it grows well as a flowering hedge. Dark green leaves are shiny and two to five inches long, turning to greenish yellow in fall. Fragrant flowers bloom in late spring as tiny, greenish white clusters. From late summer through a lot of winter, seeds mature and produce samaras.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Bloom Color: Greenish white
    • Sun Exposure: Part shade to full shade
    • Soil Needs: Dry to medium well-drained
  • 07 of 11

    Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima)

    Flying samara fruit / helicopter seeds on a Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) in September

    Whiteway / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) is an invasive tree and noxious weed in Pennsylvania and other parts of the U.S. Growing quickly into a large tree, it can reach a substantial height of 80 feet and spreads up to 60 feet in diameter. Its young bark is smooth and brown-green, turning light brown to gray. One leaf measures 1 to 4 feet and can include anywhere from 10 to 40 leaflets. While there are separate male and female trees, some perfect flowers exist, blooming in early summer. Male flowers emit what is known to be an unpleasant odor. Female trees produce seeds called "twisted samaras" in clusters that ripen to reddish-brown in September. These 1 to 2 inch-long samaras can hang on the tree through winter. A Tree of Heaven is featured in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith (1942), to mirror the main character's resilience.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 8
    • Bloom Color: Greenish
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Adaptable to average to dry medium soils, tolerates poor soil
  • 08 of 11

    Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera)

    Flowering tulip tree (Liriodendron Tulipifera) produces samara fruit / helicopter seeds

    Yanosh_Nemesh / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    Tulip tree (Liriodendron tulipifera) is named for the flowers and leaves that resemble tulips. Leaves are bright green, turning golden yellow in autumn. While leaves are 4 to 8 inches long and wide, flowers come 2 to 3 inches long. Petals are yellow-green on flowers with orange centers, blooming from May to June. Even though flowers may not appear for the tree's first 15 years, Liriodendron tulipifera can grow quickly into a large shade tree reaching as tall as 100 feet and spreading 40 feet wide. Every year, fruits appear in the form of conical clusters of samaras.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 4 to 9
    • Bloom Color: Yellow-green with orange center
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part shade
    • Soil Needs: Acidic, moist, well-drained; salt intolerant
    Continue to 9 of 11 below.
  • 09 of 11

    Tipu tree (Tipuana tipu)

    Close-up of seedpods on a Tipu tree (Tipuana tipu)

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    Tipu tree (Tipuana tipu) is a medium-sized flowering legume tree. While growing as a shade tree in warmer parts of the world such as in its native Bolivia, it is used as a flowering accent tree or a landscape specimen in the U.S. The tree has one trunk and creates a high-spreading canopy. In ideal conditions, it matures about 60 feet tall and wide. Gorgeous yellow flowers spread across the tree's canopy in the summer, turning into the tipu fruit, large brown seed pods resembling the same samaras so often seen on trees native to North America.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 9 to 11
    • Bloom Color: Yellow
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun to part sun
    • Soil Needs: Moist or dry acidic clay, loam, or sand
  • 10 of 11

    Green Ash (Fraxinum pennsylvanica)

    Green Ash (Fraxinum pennsylvanica) producing samaras

    Akchamczuk / iStock / Getty Images Plus

    One of the most common ashes, the Green Ash (Fraxinum pennsylvanica) adapts to a variety of soil conditions. It is tolerant of pollution and salt in urban areas, and can grow up to 70 feet tall and 50 feet wide. Gray-brown bark forms a diamond-like pattern. Medium-green leaves, each including five to nine leaflets, turn to shades of yellow in autumn. Blooming April through May after the foliage emerges, clusters of purplish male and female flowers come on separate trees. Fertilized female trees produce abundant fall crops of drooping clusters of winged samaras, each up to two inches long, sometimes hanging on through winter. These female trees are able to self-seed quite freely. Keep an eye out for Emerald Ash borers, which threaten ash trees.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 3 to 9
    • Bloom Color: Purple
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Average, medium wet, well-drained humusy loam
  • 11 of 11

    Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina)

    Ash trees (Fraxinus velutina) in Modesto, California, USA

    joSon / Getty Images

    Velvet Ash (Fraxinus velutina) is another type of ash tree. Fast-growing, deciduous, and native to North America, it is widely grown in California and parts of the west such as Texas. It reaches up to 50 feet tall and 60 feet wide. Springtime flowers are green and not showy, producing showy samara fruit. Three- to six-inch-long leaves are divided into multiple leaflets. In fall, foliage turns a brilliant yellow.

    • USDA Growing Zones: 7 to 8
    • Bloom Color: Green
    • Sun Exposure: Full sun
    • Soil Needs: Well-drained, alkaline or acidic clay, sand, or loam