The Canadian flag is perhaps the most significant display and honor bestowed to the maple tree: a large, prominent red maple leaf. People in temperate climates familiarize themselves with the foliage of maples early in life and realize maple leaves turn color in fall into some of the most vibrant yellow, orange and red tones. Plus, breakfast lovers know that a maple tree is a source of sweet syrup for pancakes and waffles.
Depending on which botanical reference consulted, the number of maple species in the world ranges from 120 to nearly 200. According to a posting of the Flora of China on the Harvard University website, 129 species exist, with 61 of them native only to China.
Maple trees are native to forests and cool mountainous regions on all continents except South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. Maples naturally grow in Africa but only in the northernmost countries along the coast. The highest diversity of different maple trees occurs in eastern Asia.
All maples are deciduous, losing their leaves at some point during the year, usually in the cooler temperatures of fall or winter. Their flat, broad leaves are always arranged in opposite pairs on the twigs and they have obvious pointed lobes and can have further large teeth to make them look more ornate. Maple flowers are small and not showy and are pollinated primarily by the wind although some insects may visit maple trees when in flower. Harvard University lists that the seeds of maples have dry keels on them to catch the wind. More appropriately called "samaras" or botanically "schizocarps," they spin downward from the tree, resembling helicopter blades spinning.
Maple trees belong to the botanical genus Acer and appropriately belong to the larger maple family, Aceraceae. In this family, there is only one other genus, Dipteronia, with two trees native only to China, that are most closely related to maples. Dipteronia leaves look nothing like those of maples, but more like those of a sumac. The seeds are also samaras but with two rounded wings. Some taxonomists no longer use Aceraceae, but lump maples into a tropical plant family, Sapindaceae. This provides insight that maple trees are closely related to buckeyes and the tropical fruits of litchi, akee and longan, according to "Tropical Flowering Plants."
Maples trees are attractive trees for gardens but also supply us with sugary sap to make tasty syrups, particularly the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). They provide strong wood for making furniture, cabinets, floors and structures as well as for tool handles. The tender young leaves of the Amur maple (Acer tartaricum subsp. ginnala) makes a tea.