Identify the 5 Most Common Maple Trees

Treehugger / Hilary Allison

Maple trees are classified in a family of their own, the Aceraceae. The word Acer is derived from a Latin word meaning "sharp," and the name refers to the characteristic points on the leaf lobes.  

There are approximately 125 species worldwide and 12 maples native to North America. However, five of those maple species are vastly more common to spot on your nature walk. That's because the seven less common species are found regionally, whereas the five most common ones are more widespread.

Here, we identify these top five maples and provide general tips for recognizing maple trees in the forest.

General Identification Tips

Despite the many different types of maples, these trees have some common features.

For example, maples have mostly grey-colored bark, and the deciduous leaves are often always 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, often as long as the leaf itself. The boxelder is the exception, featuring multiple, compound leaves radiating from the leafstalk. 

Maples often have small flowers that are not very showy and form in droopy clusters. The fruit, winged key seeds called double samaras, develops early in the spring.

There are also some key identifying factors when maples are in dormancy, as well:

  • Crescent-shaped leaf scars with three bundle scars
  • An egg-shaped, terminal bud that is slightly larger than the lateral buds on the branch
  • Stipule scars are absent 
  • Opposite leaf and twigs
5
of 5

Sugar Maple

Sugar maple tree leaves

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The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) can be considered the star of eastern North American fall foliage viewing. This species is also the chief source of maple syrup in Canada and the United States.

Sugar maples normally grow 80-110 feet in height, but trees as tall as 150 feet have been identified. Compared to other maples, sugar maples color unevenly in the fall. You may come across yellows, oranges, and reds on the same tree at the same time.

4
of 5

Red Maple

Red maple leaves

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The red maple (Acer rubrum) is the most widespread maple in eastern North America and can be found in both urban and forest landscapes. It normally grows to a mature height of about 50 feet. Red maples are popular landscape trees but are considered invasive in some forests, particularly where they can crowd out native oak trees.

The upper side of the leaves is green in the summertime, with the lower side silverish in color. Fall color is usually a deep red, though some trees may exhibit orange or yellow. Redbuds and new red stems also make this species very visible. With age, the bark of maple trees grows very dark.

3
of 5

Silver Maple

Silver maple tree leaf, up close

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The silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is a fast-growing maple used largely as a shade tree. However, this species is not without its problems—silver maples are brittle and subject to breakage, and the roots are shallow.

At maturity, the silver maple tree can reach 80 feet tall. The underside of the leaves is a soft silver in color; fall color is usually a pale yellow. 

2
of 5

Boxelder

Boxelder tree branch and green leaves

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The boxelder (Acer negundo) is the most common maple species in mid-western North America, and the only maple with pinnately compound leaves. Boxelder also 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. 

1
of 5

Bigleaf

Bigleaf maple tree

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Restricted to the Pacific Coast, the bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) 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 bright, golden yellow.