Vacation and hike through the mixed forests of the Catskill Mountains and you encounter five species of native maples. Located in southeastern New York State in Delaware, Greene, Ulster and Sullivan counties, most mountain summits of the Catskills range around 3000 feet in elevation. Collectively examine tree characteristics in summer or fall to most easily identify these maples.
Growing in cool, evenly moist, acidic soils rich in organic matter, the striped maple (Acer pennsylvanicum) displays vertical white stripes on its olive-brown bark. This maple usually grows as an understory tree, under the protective, shady branches of taller trees in the Catskills. It attains a mature height of 15 to 20 or 30 feet in height with equal canopy spread. The green leaves have three-pointed lobes and turn soft yellow in autumn.
Growing 40 to 60 feet tall, the red maple (Acer rubrum) grows in swampy soils as well as those on rocky slopes or rolling slopes across the Catskills. In early spring bright burgundy-red flowers line the branches following by red-tinted emergent leaves. The leaf blade comprises three main lobes, each with smaller teeth. In autumn the green leaves turn yellow with large mottled blotches of orange red to fiery scarlet red.
The silver maple (Acer saccharinum) grows in a wide array of soils, often finding a prime location where other maples do not favor in the mixed woodlands in the Catskills. There are five lobes on the dark green leaves with silvery undersides, becoming yellow to gold in fall. This fast-growing maple reaches maturity at 50 to 70 feet in height with a canopy width of 30 to 45 feet.
Early spring finds the sugar maple (Acer saccharum) producing tiny greenish yellow flowers before its five-lobed leaves emerge. Its gray-brown bark is ruggedly attractive and may be pierced to harvest sap to later boil down and make into syrup. Creating some of the most dynamic foliage colors of gold, orange and red in the Catskill autumn, sugar maple grows to a height of 60 to 75 feet with spread of 40 to 50 feet—indeed a large tree.
A small tree maturing to about 25 feet in height, the mountain maple (Acer spicatum) bears its flowers in very late spring, well after the leaves emerge. Each leaf is three- or five-lobed with large, coarse teeth all over, with a deep yellow-green color and slightly hairy underside, held by a reddish petiole stem. The smooth light brown bark splits with age to display shallow furrows.