Virtual Nature Trail

Scientific name: Acer rubrum
Common name: 
Red Maple

The red maple, like its close relative the silver maple, is sometimes called the "swamp maple" or the "soft maple". These names summarize significant features of the ecology and the physical nature of these trees. The red maple is quite possibly the most common and the most widely distributed hardwood tree in eastern North America. It is especially found in the wet soils along streams and in swampy areas and has a dense, shallow root system well adapted to the poor soil aeration properties of these sites. It can also, however, grow abundantly in well-drained, upland and even rocky soils. The soft nature of its wood (although it is stronger than the wood of the silver maple) can lead to weakness in its limbs and trunk that can contribute to its relatively short expected life span of typically less than one hundred years.

The red maple is a medium sized tree ranging from fifty to seventy feet tall at maturity with a trunk one to two feet in diameter. Its crown is irregular or rounded and is highlighted by reddish colored terminal twigs. Its leaves are two to six inches in diameter and are often nearly as wide as they are long. The leaves have three major, short pointed lobes that are dull green above and whitish-green below. The leaves turn a bright red in the fall after frost. The red maple's bark is light gray and smooth on young trees becoming increasingly furrowed and plate-like on older trees.

Flowers, Fruit and Seedlings
The red maple is one of the first trees to flower as spring approaches. Flowering may begin in the late winter or early spring. On the Nature Trail the first red maple flowers opened (in the year 2000) on March 14. The flowers are dominantly red with some yellow. In mid-March the abundance of the red maples on the ridges and in the ravines of our area is incredibly obvious. The reddish blur to the tree canopies throughout Western Pennsylvania shouts the presence of the red maple. The fruit (small samara that are also red in color) from these pollinated flowers matures by early to mid-May and falls in abundance to the forest floor. Germination of seedlings may occur immediately or may be delayed until the next spring. Seedlings grow well in the shaded conditions of the forest floor and also in the sunnier conditions of more open sites. The seedlings grow rapidly and may reach mature heights in as little as seventy years. In forested areas red maples may also stump sprout, but these sprouts are typically not as sound as new growth seedlings.

The red maple has been planted in urban areas very extensively. It is a common and important ornamental and shade tree around many homes and along many streets and roadways. The rapid growth, dense canopy and beautiful autumn color display make the red maple a very poplar urban species. Its abundant production of spring samara, the brittleness of its branches and its relatively short life expectancy, however, are major landscaping drawbacks to this species.

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This page was last updated on October 12, 2013  

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