There was a time when our streets were lined with elm trees, but those days are gone. Much more likely today is to find streets lined with Red Maple, Acer rubrum, a native forest tree that grows from Louisiana to Newfoundland, and from eastern Texas to Manitoba. Too beautiful too be limited to lining roads, Red Maple is also a top choice as a garden shade tree, and for screening. With its spectacular fall colors, handsome foliage and soft gray trunk, it is also more practical on a lawn than many other maples, because its small seeds – the maple ‘keys’ as they are called – break down quickly and disappear, without the mess seen with other species. But if you are thinking of planting a Red Maple in your garden, this is the moment to give a little thought to which one you plant, because all Red Maples are not created equal.
The named forms of plants exist for a reason. Each one has been selected for one – or usually several – specific characteristics, whether it is size, leaf color, hardiness, or soil adaptability. So rather than choosing at random, take some time to choose the tree that has the features that match your needs and garden best. Red Maple is a good example of this, because this tree has a lot of genetic variability available in it – as do most plants that grow naturally over a large range, and in different environments. Let’s take a look at the major features you can control when choosing a Red Maple tree for your garden, so that you can compare the choices available to your needs and get the right tree for your garden.
Red Maple is a medium sized tree, and you can expect it to reach 40 feet tall and almost as wide in about 30 years. This is a fast-growing tree, and 18 to 24 inches of new growth a year when young means that a handsome 20-foot tree in 10 years of so. You won’t be waiting long for that shady lawn area for summer relaxing. Don’t make the mistake of planting this tree with insufficient space for that final growth. Allow at least 20 feet from the nearest building or boundary, and don’t plant underneath overhead wires. Good soil preparation, annual fertilizer, and plenty of water will give you maximum growth in those vital first years.
Now of course, a 40-foot tree might be just a bit big for your garden, and this is where choosing a specific variety of tree can help you. If you look at a range of red maples, you will soon realize that smaller trees are available. The variety called ‘Sun Valley’ is a good example of a smaller form that is perfect for a restricted space – it tops out at not much more than 30 feet tall, and even more importantly stays narrower, so that 25 feet is about it for width. That means you only need 12 to 14 feet distance from your home, not 20, and that can make a huge difference in a smaller garden. Not only that, this tree has smaller leaves too, so it has an overall neater look. You don’t sacrifice that all-important fall color either, and you can expect glorious orange-reds to rich burgundies when fall rolls around.
The typical shape of a Red Maple is broad and rounded, with an oval form, but there are other options. Several varieties are slender and upright, and one that is widely planted is called ‘Armstrong’. This vigorous tree is probably a hybrid with silver maple, and it is able to cope with difficult urban sites better than most other Red Maple varieties. Unfortunately, especially in better soil, it will widen in age, which is a distinct drawback. The best choice for a narrow tree, reaching 40 feet but only 12 feet wide, is ‘Columnare’, which also has rich fall colors. Like the similar but smaller ‘Bowhall’, it is particular about soil, and does need moist, acidic soils to do well.
Color and Timing
Because Red Maples are such variable trees, their fall color is variable too. Since this is a major feature for gardens choosing a random tree carries the risk that you will see yellow, not red, when fall arrives. To avoid that choose a cultivar noted for color. ‘Brandywine’ is one of the very best, and it is fast growing too, so you won’t wait long for a major element in your fall garden. Its rich dark reds have purple tones too, and this is an outstanding all-round choice. If oranges and scarlets are more your thing, consider ‘Autumn Radiance’, with fiery tones that in their full glory will blow you away.
Another related consideration is when fall color develops. There is a range of at least two weeks between different forms for this, and it depends on how impatient you are for fall to arrive. As well, if you live in an area where winter storms can come early, choosing a tree that colors early will assure you of a full-length display, that isn’t going to be ripped from the branches by a storm just when it is getting going. If this sounds like your neighborhood, then you should know that ‘Autumn Radiance’ starts to color a full 2 weeks before most other varieties of Red Maple.
If, on the other hand, you live in an area with long falls, they you can fill in that later period by planting ‘Brandywine’, which colors later than most. In warmer areas seeing fall color at all can be chancy, so raise the odds with Burgundy Belle®, also known as ‘Magnificent Magenta’, which colors well in warm fall, and has unique very dark burgundy foliage for a wonderful display.
Soil, Moisture and Cold
The standard need for Red Maple is, ‘moist, acidic soil’, but most forms of this this resilient tree are in fact perfectly happy in ordinary soils, although if you have strongly alkaline soil you might want to consider a different maple. For the best chance to avoid the unsightly yellowing of the leaves, with green veins, that indicates your tree would like more acidic soil, please, there are choices available. ‘Sun Valley’ is not at all picky, and thrives just about anywhere, but avoid those upright trees we mentioned earlier, particularly ‘Bowhall’.
While most forms are reliable on all but the driest soils, with ‘Armstrong’ being especially tough in difficult spots, lots of gardens have wet places. Along a stream, by a lake, or in a low-lying area, Red Maple is a first-choice tree. For real water-tolerance, consider Burgundy Belle®, which thrives with its feet in water, and takes the heat of the South well too. ‘Brandywine’ is another good choice for hot and humid areas. At the other extreme, although most Red Maple do well in zone 4, ‘Autumn Radiance’ is especially dependable in the coldest areas.
Make Your Choice
You can see by all this that it pays to make a short ‘shopping list’ of what you need, and then compare it to the major features of the varieties available. The ones named here may not always be available, but at the Tree Center our descriptions always highlight the specific features, so its easy to make the right choices.