Hardwood maples are categorized as "hard" or "soft" hardwood trees. Hard hardwoods have strong and sturdy wood, while the wood of soft hardwoods is more pliable. Hard and soft hardwood maples are used to produce everything from the syrup on a stack of pancakes to the table the plate is sitting on. They even provide shade to comfort you outdoors on a hot summer day.
The sugar maple tree, or Acer saccharum, is classified as a "hard hardwood" maple tree. The wood of the sugar maple is strong, heavy and hard with a light brown to reddish color. It grows natively in the northeastern regions of the United States and can reach a height of more than 100 feet at maturity. Sugar maples are tapped tree for producing syrup. Sugar maples have five-lobed leaves that grow from 3- to 5-inches wide, with a bright green upper surface that changes to a pale green lower surface. Leaves turn to brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange during fall months. Sugar maples are cold hardy in USDA Zones 3 to 8.
Like its close biological cousin, the sugar maple -- the black maple, or Acer nigrum Michx. f., is a "hard hardwood." Common names for the black maple include black sugar maple, hard maple and rock maple. The wood of black maple is hard, fine-grained and light in color. Black maple and sugar maple are often combined and sold as "hard maple." The wood is used to produce cabinets, paneling, hardwood flooring and veneer in addition to syrup. Black maples reach a height of 60 feet or more at maturity and a diameter from 2 to 3 feet. Leaves are five-lobed, although the outermost two lobes appear like small bumps -- which are how they are distinguished from those of the sugar maple. The black maple is cold hardy from USDA Zones 4 to 8, and can live to be 200 years old.
The red maple, or Acer rubrum, is classified as a "soft hardwood" tree. The wood is heavy and soft, which makes it ideal for commercial uses, such as making furniture, pallets and crating. In the United States, red maples are widely disbursed. Red maples grow from Maine to Minnesota, as far south as Florida and as far west as southern Texas, making them cold hardy throughout USDA Zones 3 to 9. Leaves turn bright yellow or a brilliant orange color during fall. This majestic maple tree can reach 40 to 60 feet in height at maturity, and the trunk can grow as wide as 25 to 40 feet in diameter.
Another "soft hardwood" is the Silver maple, or Acer saccharinum. It grows predominately in the Eastern regions of the United States, though it is cold hardy from USDA Zones 3 to 9. The wood is strong and brittle (hence its "soft" classification), pale brown in color with light colored sapwood. This stately maple is commonly planted as a shade tree for home landscapes and along public boulevards. Silver maples reach 30 to 60 feet in height at maturity, and 3 to 4 feet wide. Leaves have the classic three- to five-lobe maple leaf structure with toothed edges. They are pale green on the top and silver-white underneath, hence the silver maple name.