You have no doubt noticed trees displaying a red canopy over the past couple of weeks, which are the red maples blooming very prolifically this year. The tree comes by its name honest, as there’s something red about it all year long. . In early summer you’ll see the red of ripening seeds, and all summer long the leaf stem will show red. Come autumn, much of the brilliant reds you see in the mountains are from red maples putting on a show. In winter the end twigs are also red.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) is the most common tree in our area. It’s fast growing grows to around 80 feet tall with a crown 40 feet wide. The leaves are sort of triangular shaped with 3 to 5 protruding lobes, separated by clefts with sharp angled bottoms. The leaf margin is “toothed” with lots of pointed serrations. The bark is light gray and smooth when young, but as it ages develops a darker gray and forms rough ridges running up and down the trunk. Old trees will have shaggy flat plates. The seeds are the familiar “helicopter” style (called samara) with a single wing and a seed that spins around as it falls, hopefully catching some air and drifting further away from the mother tree. The twigs, buds, and leaves all form on the branches in opposing pairs.
The wood of the red maple has medium hardness and is used to make furniture, crates, and railroad ties. Maple is known as one of a “tonewoods”, meaning it has consistent acoustic qualities, and is used to make musical instruments. Several wildlife species will eat the seeds, twigs, and buds of maple, including squirrels, chipmunks, grouse, quail, deer, turkey, rabbit, finch, and grosbeaks. In earlier times red maple was considered to have medicinal value, mostly in the bark, which was used to treat eye sores, cramps, diarrhea, and coughs. The bark was also used as a dye. The sap can be used to make maple syrup, but the sugar content is not as concentrated as sugar maple. Probably the most common used of the tree is as a landscape plant, where it is popular for its bright color during different seasons and rapid growth. It’s a custom in Japan to go to places known to display the bright color of maples in autumn, and call the act of viewing them “momijigari”. The down side of red maple as a yard tree is it’s a little prone to wind and ice damage and can have disease problems. The tree lives an average of 80 to 120 years.
Foresters (including me) have an issue with red maple in that it is slowly taking over forests that were formerly dominated by oak and hickory. Oak is a highly valued tree both for its wood and as a critical wildlife food source from the acorns. Red maple is the ultimate survivor species, able to grow about anywhere, from swamps to dry ridges, in sunlight or shade. So as oak forests are cut or die from old age, red maple is working its way into the forest canopy, turning it redder as time goes on. Forest managers are challenged with how to keep the oaks around.