Red Maple: a Tree for All Seasons

A multi-seasonal landscape tree showcases a plethora of changing colours and textures throughout the year. The red maple, also known as the scarlet maple, presents an array of attractive features throughout all four seasons- spring, summer, fall and winter. It is also one of the most abundant and widespread maples in North America with its range extending across Ontario to eastern Canada and down along the American east coast to southern Florida.

 

Aptly named red maple (Acer rubrum)- Acer meaning maple and rubrum meaning red- the common and Latin names both refer to the many parts of the tree that are red in colour, including its flowers, fruit, twigs and fall foliage. Each of these stunning “red” attributes can be seen on the red maple at different times throughout the year.

 

In late winter to early spring, before the leaves emerge, small, hanging clusters of bright red male and female flowers appear. These early blooms provide an important food source for native pollinators, such as mason bees and bumblebees, who consume the nutrient rich nectar and pollen. 

 

Following the flowers, small, reddish-brown clusters of two-winged, papery, horseshoe-shaped fruits, called samaras, emerge and ripen in the late spring to early summer. This early fruit emergence is a trait only shared with the native silver maple (Acer saccharinum) as the fruit of all other native maples emerges in the fall. Often called maple keys or helicopters, the samaras are borne on long, slender stems and hold seeds that are favoured by small wildlife, including squirrels, chipmunks and rabbits, as well as songbirds, such as the red-breasted nuthatch, purple finch and evening grosbeak.

Throughout the summer months, the red maple shows off its simple, bright green foliage. The leaves are rounded with three-to-five shallow lobes and serrated edges, providing an essential food source for the native rosy maple moth, maple looper moth and cecropia moth. From September to November, the foliage can turn anywhere from a pale yellow to orange to a flaming, scarlet red colour. However, it’s important not to confuse this native species with the red-leaved cultivars of the Norway maple (Acer platanoides), which are non-native and invasive. 

 

As winter approaches, the leaves fall off to expose bright red branches, twigs and buds, arranged opposite one another. Red maple bark is smooth and silver-grey in colour when young, but turns scaly and dark grey as it matures. Because the wood is soft and fine-grained, it is suitable for making clothespins, musical instruments and cutting boards. Throughout the winter, the red maple also provides nesting habitat for birds, such as the screech owl, pileated woodpecker, northern flicker and tree swallow. Furthermore, red maples are sometimes tapped for their sap in order to make maple syrup. However, the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is still preferred because it has twice the sugar content.

 

Ultimately, the outstanding multi-seasonal characteristics of the red maple make it a sought after tree. If you are looking to plant a multi-seasonal tree in your yard, visit our website to set up a consultation with one of our arborists this spring!

 

 

Brenna Anstett is an ISA certified arborist and the Residential Planting Programs Manager at LEAF.

 

LEAF offers a subsidized Backyard Tree Planting Program for private property. The program is supported by the City of Toronto, the Regional Municipality of York, the City of Markham, the Town of Newmarket, the Town of Ajax, the Regional Municipality of Durham, the Township of Scugog, the City of Pickering, the City of Oshawa, the Town of Whitby, Ontario Trillium Foundation and Ontario Power Generation.

 

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