Thirteen species of maples that attain tree size grow in the United States, Mexico and Canada, notes the book “Trees of North America," and maples have certain features that set them apart from other kinds of trees. For example, the branches on maple trees grow opposite one other. In addition, the leaves grow opposite one another on the twigs. Maple leaves, for the most part, will be a specific shape and their seeds, known as samaras, are among the most recognizable in the plant kingdom.
Look for the hand-shaped palmate leaves of maple trees. All but one of the North American maple species has leaves with anywhere from three to as many as nine lobes. The lone exception is boxelder, a type of maple with compound leaves formed by as many as five smaller leaflets attached to a main stem.
Examine the leaf shape closely, looking to ascertain the total number of lobes on it and trying to discern the shape of the lobes. The sugar maple features from three to five pointed lobes, while the Florida maple’s three or five lobes possess more rounded tips. The chalk maple typically has three blunt-tipped lobes; the vine maple has as many as nine pointy lobes.
Inspect the indentations between maple leaf lobes. Some will be very small, like those of black maple and the striped maple, with the latter's leaf looking almost like the outline of a goose’s foot. Others, like those of the silver maple, are deep, running down almost to the base of the leaf.
Measure the diameters of maple leaves, looking for distinct size differences. Smaller leaves grow on types like the Florida maple and chalk maple; these will be in the 2- to 3-inch range. Other maples have much broader leaves, with some of the widest belonging to the bigleaf maple, which can have foliage a foot in diameter.
Observe the color of maple tree bark. Examine the texture, looking to determine if the surface is scaly, rough, ridged, furrowed or smooth. Combine this information to help identify the species. For instance, the bark of chalk maple will always be smooth and a milky white shade. The bark on a red maple will be scaly when the tree matures and a light grayish color.
Compare maple tree heights to tell one from another. The tallest of the American maples, such as black maple and sugar maple, can reach to 100 feet from top to bottom. The intermediate maples, in the range of 60 to 80 feet, are types like the silver maple and red maple. Smaller North American maples include the chalk maple and the mountain maple—species that are in the 20- to 40-foot tall category.
Study the samaras of maples, a pair of seeds attached to each other that seem to form a set of wings. These “whirlybirds” spin and float down from the maple trees. Noting the average length of a maple tree's samaras is the best way to use them to tell maples apart. The silver maple has samaras that can reach lengths of 2.5 inches. The samaras of the Florida maple are much smaller, averaging between 3/4 of an inch and 1 inch in length.