The red maple (Acer rubrum) grows throughout much of the eastern United States in the wild and as a very popular shade and ornamental tree. Red maple takes its name from the color of its buds, twigs, flowers and fall foliage. Red maple flourishes on damp, fertile soils in woodlands and near rivers and streams. The tree can grow in many types of soils, but moist, acidic ground is where it will do best. Identification of the red maple comes through close inspection of its many features.
Red maples grow to 60 to 90 feet tall; those growing in the open have a rounded crown of branches. In a forest scenario, red maple has a much narrower crown. Under the right conditions, some red maple trees can exceed 100 feet in height. The diameter of the red maple's trunk can be as much as 2 1/2 feet. The leaves on a red maple are 2 to 4 inches in length.
As with all maple trees, the leaves of the red maple grow opposite one another on the twigs. Red maple leaves have either three lobes or five; those that are three-lobed possess the shape of a trident. Those with five lobes have much smaller lobes close to the base of the leaf than the other three lobes. The color of the foliage is medium-green on the upper sides but a frosted-silvery green on the underside. The petiole (stem) will turn reddish once the leaves fully develop. In the fall, the red maple leaves can turn colors other than red, with many changing to yellows and oranges before falling off.
Flowers and Seeds
The flowers of a red maple appear prior to the leaves' coming out on the tree. Red maple flowers are small and hang in clusters of red, orange or yellow blooms. Red maple is a monoecious species, meaning it has flowers of both sexes on the same tree. The female flowers, once pollinated, turn into the seed-bearing part of the maple. Called samaras, these seedpods grow in pairs, attached at the top and looking like wings. The samaras exist on long stems and spin down from the red maple at the end of spring or in summer's first weeks.
Bark on a full-grown red maple comes in an array of textures. The bark on the young trees is grayish-silver and smooth to the touch. Older trees have darker gray bark, and ridges and fissures permeate the surface. The bark can have a shaggy appearance on some red maples and a series of rough plates on others. The inner bark of a red maple usually has an orange hue. The University of Connecticut Plant Database website says that the red leaf buds and flowers of spring contrast favorably with the darker bark on older trees.
You may see red maple trees tapped for their sap to make maple syrup in different parts of the tree's range. Look for red maples in the wild throughout the East, from southern Canada to Florida. The western boundary of the red maple's range is in eastern Texas, eastern Oklahoma, southern Missouri and Illinois and into the Great Lakes states. Gray squirrels may lead you to a red maple, as the small mammal favors the buds as a primary food in late winter.