Consider Planting Red Maple in Your Yard

A Brief Review on Planting, Selecting, and Identifying Red Maple

red maple tree in green backyard on overcast gray winter day

Treehugger / Lindsey Reynolds

Red maple is the state tree of Rhode Island and its "Autumn Blaze" cultivar was selected 2003 Tree of the Year by the Society of Municipal Arborists. Red maple is one of the first trees to show off red flowers in the spring and displays a most magnificent scarlet fall color. Red maple is a fast grower without the bad habits of fast growers. It quickly makes shade without the compromise of becoming brittle and messy.

The most endearing ornamental characteristic of red maple is fall color including red, orange, or yellow which sometimes on the same tree. The color display is long lasting over several weeks and often one of the first trees to color up in autumn. This maple puts on one of the most brilliant displays of any tree in the landscape with a great variety of fall colors with variable intensities. Nursery developed cultivars are more consistently colored.

Habit and Range

Red maple transplants easily at any age, has an oval shape and is a fast grower with strong wood and grows into a medium-large tree of about 40' to 70'. The red maple occupies one of the largest eastern north-south ranges in North America—from Canada to the tip of Florida. The tree is very tolerant and grows in nearly any condition.

These trees are often much shorter in the southern part of its range unless growing next to a stream or on a wet site. This maple tree is far superior to it's Acer cousins silver maple and boxelder and just as fast growing. Still, when planting the species Acer rubrum, you would benefit by selecting only varieties which have been grown from seed sources in your area and this maple may not do well in the southernmost USDA Plant Zone 9.

The beginning of leaf buds, red flowers, and unfolding fruits indicate that spring has arrived. The seeds of red maple are quite popular with squirrels and birds. This tree can sometimes be confused with red-leaved cultivars of Norway maple.

Strong Cultivars

Here are some of the best cultivars of red maple:

  • 'Armstrong': Grows in all 50 states, has attractive silver-gray bark, columnar in shape, spectacular red to orange to yellow leaf color.
  • 'Bowhall': Grows in all 50 states, somewhat pyramidal shape, very similar to Norway maple, red to orange to yellow leaf display.
  • 'Autumn Blaze': Plant zones 4-8, hybrid of silver maple and red maple.

Identification of Red Maple

The leaves: deciduous, opposite, long-petioled, blades 6-10 cm long and usually about as wide, with 3 shallow short-pointed lobes, sometimes with two smaller lobes near the base, dull green and smooth above, lighter green or silvery beneath and more or less hairy.

The flowers: pink to dark red, about 3 mm long, the male flowers are fascicled and the female flowers are in drooping racemes. The flowers are functionally male or female, and individual trees may be all male or all female or some trees may have both types, each type on a separate branch (the species technically polygamodioecious), or the flowers may be functionally bisexual.

Fruits: winged nutlets (samaras) in a pair, 2-2.5 cm long, clustered on long stalks, red to red-brown. The common name is in reference to the red twigs, buds, flowers, and fall leaves. 

From the USDA/NRCS Plant Guide

Expert Comments

  • "It is a tree for all seasons that develops into an attractive yard specimen under a great range of soil and climatic conditions." -Guy Sternberg, Native Trees for North American Landscapes
  • "The red, red maple. Native to the wet soils of America's eastern half, it has become one of the Nation's favorite—if not the hardiest—street trees." -Arthur Plotnik, The Urban Tree Book
  • "Reddish flowers appear in early spring and are followed by red fruit. The smooth gray bark is quite attractive, particularly on young plants." -Michael Dirr, Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs P