The world is full of trees and many people are happy to leave it at that – loving them all or seeing them as a green background to life. But natural human curiosity makes most of us notice that they are not all the same, but different. Sometimes those differences are obvious, such as between needle-trees (conifers) and broad-leaf trees, but other times they are more subtle, sometimes so subtle it takes a specialist to spot them at all. Learning to recognize and name the major trees around you is a fun pastime that certainly makes anyone feel they know more about the natural world and are therefore more involved in the lives of the other living things that share this planet with us. A good place to start is with the common trees that fill our forests and gardens.
Maple trees (Acer to botanist and keen gardeners) are common forest and garden trees seen almost everywhere, so how can we tell if our tree is a maple? When we talk about maple tree identification, there are two sides to this. The first is to be able to recognize a maple from, say, an oak or an ash tree. The second, more difficult, is to recognize one maple species from another. So let’s start with the easier one of these first.
How to Tell a Maple from another Kind of Tree
There are a few basic things to look for, questions to ask if you like, that will help separate maple trees in general from other kinds of trees:
- A maple tree has the leaves and buds opposite each other on the stems. This is easy to see at any time of year and if they are not opposite, it isn’t a maple – period.
- The leaves are simple. That doesn’t mean simple in shape, it means that if you look at the small stalk that attaches the leave to the stem, there is just one leaf on the end of it – maybe divided into deep segments, but just one leaf. If there appear to be several leaves on that stalk, then it almost certainly isn’t a maple. It could be an ash or a butternut, or several other things, but it is not a maple.
- Next, look if the leaf is simple in shape, more or less oval, with perhaps tiny teeth around the edges, but basically round or oval with no obvious divisions. If the answer to that question is, “Yes”, then it is not a maple. Maples have leaves divided into lobes, from three to nine in most cases, often with each lobe having smaller lobes coming from it, like big teeth.
- Now look at the leaf itself. Notice the veins that come from the base where the stalk ends. Do they radiate out, like fingers? If you follow the main ones to the end of the leaf, is that also the end of a lobe of the leaf? Is there one lobe at the centre, with the others coming down the sides? If so, this could easily be a maple tree. Some other trees, like oak for example, also have lobes, but there is a clear central vein down the leaf, with smaller veins coming from it to each lobe. Anyway, an oak tree does not have the leaves opposite each other on the stems.
- There are a few non-maples that also have ‘maple-like’ leaves, but there are other differences. If the tree has maple leaves, but doesn’t have opposite buds and leaves, then it is probably a sycamore tree (Platanus). If it has a cut-off end, without a central lobe, it is probably a tulip tree (Liriodendron).
- The trickiest one to distinguish is the sweetgum (Liquidamber) which does have maple-like leaves and opposite buds. However the leaf is much more star-shaped, with big lobes all much the same size and if you look underneath the tree you should find round, ball-shaped seeds, not the typical wing-shaped seeds of a maple.
- Finally, look for seeds. If they look like a pair of wings or often just one wing when they fall off the tree and separate, then for sure this is a maple tree.
If you have worked your way through this list of simple features, then you are almost certainly looking at a maple tree. Congratulations!
How to Tell One Maple Tree from Another
Now things get a bit trickier – as any forestry or gardening student will tell you. It takes more skill to distinguish some of the maples from each other. In fact you need to be quite an expert to get it right with all the maples around, but for some of the common ones that might be found in gardens, there are a few useful tips.
An easy and common one to start with is the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). If your maple is a very small tree, with small leaves, perhaps colored deep red in summer and it has five big lobes like fingers and two tiny ones at the base, it could easily be a Japanese maple. These come in many forms, some with lobes that are very thin and narrow, almost like threads, and if it looks like that it is definitely one of the 1,000 or so varieties of Japanese Maple.
A pair that often causes confusion is between the native Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) and the alien Norway Maple (Acer platanoides). These both have very similar leaves, with five main lobes, but in the sugar maple the angle between the central lobe and the side lobes is wide, around 600, while in a Norway maple it is closer to 300. A second thing to check is the sap in the leaf stalk. If it is milky, it’s a Norway maple, if it’s clear, it’s a sugar maple. However before settling on sugar maple, look at the color of the underside of the leaf. If it is blue-gray, rather than green, then it is probably instead a silver maple (Acer saccharinum).
From here on it things get complicated. If you are keen there are lots of useful guides out there to help you recognize the many different maple trees, but at least you now know your maple from your oak!