The 5 Most Common North American Maple Trees

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Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Acer sp. is the genus of trees or shrubs commonly known as the maples. Maples are classified in a family of their own, the Aceraceae, and there are approximately 125 species worldwide. The word Acer is derived from a Latin word meaning "sharp," and the name refers to the characteristic points on the leaf lobes. The maple tree is the national arboreal emblem of Canada. 

There are actually twelve native maples found in North America, but only five are commonly seen across most of the continent. The other seven that occur regionally are black maple, mountain maple, striped maple, bigleaf maple, chalk maple, canyon maple, Rocky Mountain maple, vine maple, and Florida maple.

Your chances of seeing a native maple are good in both the urban landscape and in the forest. With few exceptions (Norway and Japanese maples are exotics) you will find these native maples and their cultivars in profusion.

Common North American Maple Species

Sugar Maple tree leaves turning red.

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  • Sugar maple or Acer saccharum. The star of eastern North American fall foliage viewing and principle source of maple syrup. It normally grows 80 to 110 feet in height, but 150-foot specimens have been known. Compared to other maples, sugar maples color unevenly in the fall; sometimes yellows, oranges, and reds are all seen at the same time. 
  • Red maple or Acer rubrum. The most widespread maple in eastern North America and ubiquitous in both the urban and forest landscape. It normally grows to a mature height of about 50 feet. It is a very popular landscape tree but is considered invasive in some forests, where it crowds out native oaks. The upper side of the leaves is green, with the lower side silverish in color. In older trees, the bark is very dark. Fall color is usually a deep red, though some trees may exhibit orange or yellow. 
  • Silver maple or Acer saccharinum. A fast-growing maple used largely as a shade tree, but with problems. This maple is brittle and subject to breakage. The roots shallow and can cause property damage. At maturity, it may be 80 feet tall. The underside of the leaves is a soft silver in color; fall color is usually a pale yellow. 
  • Boxelder or Acer negundo - The most common maple sp. in mid-western North America, and the only maple with pinnately compound leaves. Boxelder has the largest range of all North American maples. It is a fast-growing but short-lived maple, and in favorable conditions, it may grow as much as 80 feet in height. Leaves turn yellow in the fall. 
  • Bigleaf or Acer macrophyllum. Restricted to the Pacific Coast, this tree is the most massive of North American maples. It can grow to be 150 feet tall or more, but more typically tops out at 50 to 65 feet in height. In fall, the leaves turn golden yellow. 

General Identification Tips

Red Maple leaves hanging on a branch against a blue sky.

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The deciduous leaves on all maples are arranged on stems opposite each other. The leaves are simple and palmate shaped on most species, with three or five main veins radiating from the leafstalk. The leafstalks are long and often as long a the leaf itself. The boxelder alone has compound leaves, with multiple leaves radiating from the leafstalk. 

Maples have small flowers that are not very showy and form in droopy clusters. The fruit is winged key seeds (called double samaras) and develops early in the spring. Very visible are the redbuds and new red stems on red maple.

Maples have bark that is generally gray but variable in form. Good identifiers of maples in dormancy are:

  • Crescent-shaped leaf scars with three bundle scars
  • A terminal bud that is egg-shaped and slightly larger than the lateral buds on the branch
  • Stipule scars are absent 
  • Opposite leaf and twigs