Ask A Master Gardener – The Maple Tree

A True Wisconsin Tree—The Maple

In 1893, a favorite tree was selected by a group of Wisconsin school children. The maple beat out oak, pine and elm trees.  In 1948, that selection was narrowed by another vote to sugar maple specifically. In 1949, the sugar maple was made the official state tree by a vote of the Wisconsin Legislature.

Sugar maple trees are one of the largest of the maples and can be tapped for sap to make maple syrup. What child would not be influenced to choose a tree that makes syrup?  There are a number of other maple trees that are excellent for home landscapes and school children might have been happy to include them in the vote, had they known about their delightful characteristics.

Maples are often grown as shade trees and as spectacular fall color specimens. Fall colors range from a subtle yellow to orange to deep blazing red. Depending on the type, they can be narrow and more columnar, wide spreading and rounded, or mounded in shape.  They vary in size from the small eight-foot Japanese Maple to the large one-hundred-foot Sugar Maple.  They can be used as accent, specimen, or border trees depending on the species. They can also serve as a screen or a hedge, when planted correctly.

Maples prefer rich, porous, well-drained soil. The red and silver maples will grow in soils more on the moist side.  They grow well in full sun to partial shade.  Red and silver maples are softer and tend to grow faster.  The slower growing (or “hard”) sugar maple may take up to 22 years before it flowers, but can live for hundreds of years.

The thin bark of the maple is fragile and young trees must be protected during the winter to prevent sunscald and frost cracks, particularly when planted in sunny locations. Maple roots tend to be shallow and the canopies dense.  Therefore, it is best to not plan on growing turf beneath this tree. In addition, maples are sensitive to soils with high pH and to deicing salts.  So, avoiding sidewalks or driveways would be advised.

If maple syrup is on the bucket list, plant a sugar maple, acer saccharum. This is a hardy, large tree, 50 to 80 feet tall and 35 to 50 feet wide.  It is a slow grower, only about a foot per year, but is exceptionally long lived.  It thrives in both sun and partial shade and will tolerate moderate drought in areas where the roots have ample room to expand.  The fall colors cover the entire maple range, and it is a prolific producer of winged fruit in the fall (“helicopters” or, more properly, samaras) that are highly attractive to wildlife.

A smaller, faster growing tree is the red maple, acer rubrum. It will grow 40 to 60 feet tall and 25 to 35 feet wide at a medium rate, reaching 10 to 12 feet in the first 5 to 7 years.  It has a moderate life span in urban setting, but will live longer in wet environments.  Fall color is outstanding with one tree have a complete range of colors.  However, young trees do not always exhibit the colors of the mature tree.  The name of the tree does not come from the leaf color, but from the bright red flowers that appear in April or May.  This soft wood tree is more susceptible to wind and ice storms as well, although it fares better than silver maples.

Silver maples are the fastest growing (achieving 10 to 12 feet in 4 to 5 years) and achieve a height of 50 to 70 feet with a spread of 35 to 50 feet. The greatest disadvantage to this tree is weak wood that breaks easily in wind and ice storms.  Regular pruning to assure good structure will help minimize broken branches.

There is a hybrid tree that melds the best characteristics of the red and silver maple: Autumn Blaze® Maple, Acer x freemanii, also called Freeman Maple. This is a fast-growing, upright, oval tree, shooting up at 3 feet per year in good conditions, topping out at 40 to 60 feet high and wide.  It has a solid structure making it less prone to weather damage. The fall color is a brilliant, outstanding red. If school children were to choose today, they may just opt for this beautiful tree.  Although, it would still be hard to pass up that maple syrup.

Carol Shirk

Certified Master Gardener

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