Red maples also go by the name of scarlet or swamp maples and belong to the Aceraceae family. These large-sized trees are distributed from Florida to Texas in the south and Manitoba, Canada to Newfoundland in the north, according to the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida. Red maples are distinguished from other trees by their winged fruit. The fruit is technically called samara, but many people commonly know them as helicopters.
Red maples provide a number of landscape and practical uses. They serve as shade, yard or street trees. They are highly valued as ornamental trees because of their spring flowers and bright autumn colors. Early settlers made dyes and ink from tannin extracted from red maples. The wood is considered a soft wood; it is not suitable for large furniture like hardwood trees, but it can be used to make clothes hangers, veneer and interior finish.
Red maples have a broad, round crown. Young red branches turn gray on older limbs. Maples have what is called an opposite leaf arrangement, which means the leaves emerge on opposite sides of the stem at the node to produce a mirror image. The leaves on most trees have an alternate arrangement, which means they form a spiral along the branch somewhat like steps of a spiral staircase. Red maple leaves appear light green on the surface and a whitish color underneath. Autumn color is typically a scarlet color.
Red maples demonstrate considerable variety in growing habits. Autumn Blaze develops a round silhouette with ascending branches and exhibits a flaming orange-red autumn color. Bowhall takes a conical or upright shape and produces yellow leaves dotted with orange and red highlights. The Columnae cultivar forms a columnar or pyramidal shape and yields ideal dark green summer foliage. Northwood thrives in harsh conditions of northern climates, while October Glory survives the warm temperatures of southern regions.
Native red maples inhabit wetlands and poorly drained sites. They occur in deciduous swamps alongside American elms, tamaracks and yellow birches or in coniferous swamps with balsam firs, northern white cedars and black and white spruces. They grow in upland forests associated with oaks, hickories, white ash and sugar maples. Native red maples even tolerate drier sites. Landscape trees tolerate most conditions, but prefer sites with acidic or sandy soils in sun to light shade.
Red maples have soft wood, which makes them vulnerable to storm damage. The trees create deep shade that can make it a challenge to grow grass underneath. They produce a sticky sap in winter and show signs of manganese chlorosis in spring. Chlorosis is a form of leaf yellowing associated with high alkaline soils. Red maples are not recommended for soils with a pH above 7.0, unless steps are taken to lower the pH with an amendment like sulfur.