Red maple

Acer rubrum
Family: Sapindaceae

Natural Historyred maple
Autumn foliage of red maple
Photo credit: Larry Korhnak, University of Florida

The red maple is also known as scarlet maple and swamp maple. It is easily recognized in the fall when the red leaves stand out along the forest edges along roads and along riverbanks. Of all species along the East Coast, the red maple has the most widespread distribution. The dramatic fall color of red can be seen from an airplane.

Pioneers used the tannin extracted from the tree to make dyes and ink. The dyes were used for linens, hats, and shoes. Sugar may also be drawn from the red maple in very small quantities unlike the sugar maple, which is well known for the production of maple syrup.

Habitat & Range

The red maple is most common on moist bottomland soils or in swamps along with other hardwoods such as cottonwoods, oaks, black ash, and black tupelo.  It is also found on drier upland soils, occurring at altitudes of up to 6000 feet. The red maple occurs throughout the entire east coast from extreme southeastern regions of Manitoba east to Newfoundland, south to southern Florida and west to eastern Texas.

Wildlife Use

The seeds of the red maple are eaten by chipmunks and squirrels, while some songbirds use stalks for nest-building.

Human Use

The wood of red maple is soft and may be used for smaller materials such as clothes hangers, clothespins, box veneer, interior finish, and some types of furniture. However, this tree is more prized as an ornamental or shade tree because of its rapid growth, highly colored flowers and fruit, and autumn color.


 

Identifying Characteristics

Size/Form: The red maple is a medium-sized tree generally 40 to 50 feet tall, but capable of reaching heights of 90 feet. Trunk diameter ranges between 1 and 2 feet. It is known for its red flowers, leaf stalks, and autumn foliage. Grown in the open, the red maple possesses a dense, narrow, oblong crown branching near the ground. In the forest, the tree is free of branches for 30 feet or more and produces a narrow, short, round crown.
Leaves: Leaves are simple, opposite, and deciduous. Each leaf has three pointed lobes with shallow sinuses between them. The leaf margins are coarsely and irregularly serrate. Leaves are light green above, while paler and glabrous below and turn brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows in the fall. Leaf petioles are red or reddish-green, 2 - 4 inches in length.
Twigs: The twigs are slender, shiny, and reddish-brown. The pith is white and homogeneous.
Bark: The bark on the red maple tree is gray, thin and smooth in younger trees but becomes a little thicker with shallow fissures as the tree matures.
Flowers: This tree can be either dioecious or monoecous. Flowers are red and in stalked clusters.
Fruit: The fruit is a reddish-brown double samara, which occurs in clusters on slender stalks. Wings are thin and about ¾ of an inch in length. Small, red flowers appear before the fruit does. Both the flowers and the fruit usually are seen first in the spring before any other species flower or leaf-out. In Florida, this usually occurs in January and February.
Similar Trees on the Florida 4-H Forest Ecology Contest List:

 

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