Sunday, March 2, 2014

Red Maple Takes a Chance

We had a couple of below freezing temps this week but that didn’t slow up our earliest spring blooming tree. Red maple (Acer rubrum) started blooming around me last week (mid-February) and this little bit of cold wasn’t about to slow it up! As such an early spring bloomer, it definitely takes a chance on being able to complete it's reproductive work without having the process frozen in mid-cycle.

Red maple is naturally found in Georgia from the counties in the mountains to the furthest depths of the southern coastal plain. In addition to having such early blooms, the fall color can be outstanding. When you are admiring the fall color sweeps in the north Georgia mountains, you are admiring a lot of maples.

The flowers start out as tight red buds that lend a bit of color to the twigs even before they bloom. As the buds expand, exposing the stamens and pistils, the twigs take on a hazy look.

Male flowers, bright red stamens

I know that maples produce pistillate (female) and staminate (male) flowers. I looked at every tree I could find within walking distance and found only staminate flowers. Does this mean that I won’t have any samaras this year? Or perhaps the female flowers are very high up or they haven’t opened up yet.

Male flowers, stamens opened to release pollen

Female flowers

At the local elementary school I did finally find some pistillate flowers; these might be on a hybrid red maple tree, but it gives you a sense of how different the female flowers look.

I was interested in finding out if the flowers are insect pollinated or wind pollinated. It is possible that the answer is both. I haven’t seen any insects on mine, but people that keep bee hives say that the honey bees visit red maples.

After the flowers are pollinated, the female flowers will produce pink samaras, dangling from long stalks. The profusion of these will allow the tree to appear, from a distance, that it is still blooming. 

A month or so later the samaras will drop to the ground, in the twirling dance that is so familiar to us from childhood. The spring drop of the seeds distinguishes red maple from some of the other maples that drop their seeds in the early fall (such as chalk maple, Acer leucoderme). 

Red maple is quite common in some places and is a tree that is very adaptable. I find it anywhere from dry, shady conditions to wet and sunny spots. In shady conditions it won’t bloom as much, of course. 

The fall color can be quite variable. In my experience, trees that don’t get as much sun tend to turn yellow in the fall. Trees in sunny areas turn an orange-red color.

Adaptable, early blooming and fall color – what more could you want? It’s also a top wildlife tree. 

In the eastern US, it supports approximately 285 species of Lepidoptera as a host plant (such as the rosy maple moth), according to research by Doug Tallamy. That makes it #8 on his list of top 20 woody plants for supporting butterflies and moths

Many birds and small mammals rely on the seeds as part of their diet. As many a gardener knows, those seeds can be prolific! Seed eating birds like cardinals appreciate the bounty.

So if you see a tree outlined in a red haze this time of year, now you can identify it as a red maple. You can also feel good about recognizing how much it is contributing to the local ecosystem around it.

Red maples can be large trees and are frequently found on old properties


  1. Great post, Ellen! I loved the pictures of the flowers. You inspired me to check the red maple in our yard. On one branch I found only staminate flowers, but on another branch there was a mixture -- a few staminate, some female only and a few with both pistils and stamens. I think you idea that the female flowers might be more abundant on the upper branches makes sense. if the seeds are wind dispersed then producing them as high up as possible would make sense. It is also possible that you were finding male cultivars. Some people will prefer a seed-free tree to avoid having to pull up all the little sprouting seeds later in the year.
    Thanks again for a stimulating post.

  2. It's amazing how often we allow the familiar and quotidian features in our landscape to be prefixed with the "just another" attitude. In this case, "it's just another red maple." Oh yeah? Well, your entry this week reminds us that just another maple is full of exciting discoveries awaiting our closer inspection. Thank you!

  3. I too am now inspired to examine maple flowers more closely, and am happy to learn how they support our mammal and avian friends. Thanks once again for an informative post!

  4. Great information. I was unaware of the importance of red maples to butterflies and birds!

  5. I have seen one of these in Colorado Springs, CO. Is that possible?