Written by davethetreecenters • October 28 Maple Tree Identification

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:

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!