Red maple derives its name from its brilliant autumnal foliage. While common in swamps and moist slopes throughout New York, it is also abundant on dry slopes. Red maple is becoming more common as it typically reproduces well by seed and by sprouts from the stump following cutting. It is an extremely rapid-growing tree, furnishing a fairly strong, close-grained wood, and is used extensively for inexpensive furniture, in the manufacture of baskets and crates, for mine props, railroad ties, and fuel wood. The fruit, a samara, is an important wildlife food as it develops in the spring when other foods typically are not yet available.
Description: Red maple is named for its red flowers, red fruit, red twigs, and of course, the brilliant red fall foliage! Autumn sightseers of the eastern deciduous forest praise the red maple for its striking scarlet leaves. Few people know that red maple foliage can turn yellow or orange in the fall too.
Red maples are fast-growing trees that usually reach 60 to 90 feet in height. The largest ones can grow more than 120 feet tall.
By tree standards, red maples don’t live very long. The average lifespan is only 80 to 100 years. The oldest ones may reach their 200th birthday, but this is extremely rare. However, red maples can start producing seeds at just four years old.
Red maples are perhaps the most abundant tree in the eastern deciduous forest. This status can be attributed to the tree’s generalist tendencies. A generalist species is one that can tolerate a wide range of habitat conditions and uses many different types of resources. Red maples do well in sunny or shady spots, dry or wet soil, high or low elevation, etc. It’s unlikely that any other tree in North America can match the red maple’s wide range of growing conditions! Adaptable roots help the red maple to cope with differing soil types. If the tree is placed in wet soil, it grows a short taproot and extensive lateral roots to soak up water at the surface. When red maples grow in dry sites, a long taproot and short lateral roots develop. Despite their remarkable roots, red maples grow better in some conditions than others. Deep, moist, acidic soil results in the healthiest red maples.
U.S. Range: Red maples are native to the eastern deciduous forest. They’re found from Maine west to Minnesota, south to Texas, and east to Florida. In the southernmost parts of their range, red maples are a wetland species, which has earned them the nickname “swamp maple.” Lucky bird watchers might see wood ducks nesting inside cavities of swamp maples.
Life History and Reproduction:
Small red flowers appear on red maples early in spring from March to April, and the fruit develops from April to June. Red maple fruits, called samaras, look much different from the typical fruits that people eat. Samaras have an enclosed seed at one end, and a thin, dry, wing-like projection at the other. Many people refer to them as helicopters or whirlybirds, because the wing makes them spin when they fall from the tree. Seeds are gobbled up by small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks.
Red maple wood is soft and often deformed, which means that only the best specimens can be used for making sturdy products like furniture and flooring. However, red maple is well-suited for making clothespins, musical instruments, and boxes. Many homeowners choose to plant red maple as an ornamental tree, because it’s beautiful and easy to grow. As fast-growing generalists, red maples have taken up a spot as one of the most abundant trees in the forest, even though they are highly susceptible to diseases and pests. After fires or hurricanes, when many trees are decimated, red maples spring up quickly and can become the dominant species in the forest. The extensive growth of this species is kept in check by moose, deer, and rabbit, for which red maple is a favorite treat.