Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Fall Profile: Maples

Possibly the most beautiful maple ever - Acer leucoderme
Deciduous trees can offer a wide range of fall color and maple trees (Acer spp.) are an essential part of a good mix. Unlike some other trees, the color you get depends upon the species you choose and sometimes even the plant itself (unlike Hickory, for example, which is always yellow).

I've been comparing the fall color on maples around me lately and thought I could present some ideas on what to choose if you’re looking for specific colors. From yellow to orange to red, they’re all here.

All maples have opposite leaf arrangement and lobed, simple leaves. In general they are important to wildlife for a variety of reasons. The flowers, especially the early flowers of red maple, are sources of pollen for insects as early as February in south Georgia. The seeds are eaten by birds and small mammals.  The foliage is a host plant for 285 different species of Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths), making it #8 on the top 20 list of woody plants that provide host services.

And, as we all know, the winged samaras that contain the seeds are a source of much amusement for children as they twirl to the ground. Some species of maples drop their seeds in the spring (red and silver, for example) while others drop their seeds in the fall (sugar and chalk).

Red maple (Acer rubrum)

Red maple (Acer rubrum) is a common wild maple throughout Georgia. The ones that I find the most have 3 primary lobes with serrated margins. Sometimes there will be 5 lobes but the two lobes closest to the base will be smaller compared to the others.

Not only is leaf shape variable, but this species can have fall color that is yellow, yellow with red highlights, orange or red.

Red maple - reddish leaves
Red maple - yellowish leaves
Nurserymen have created cultivars from red maple to produce reliable red fall color. Two excellent choices are ‘October Glory’ and ‘Red Sunset.’ Both are selections of the species itself, not hybrids. You can find them in professionally designed landscapes – they are especially noticeable when they all turn red at once in the same parking lot.

Acer rubrum 'October Glory'
Acer x freemanii 'Autumn Blaze'
Red maple has also been hybridized (crossed) with silver maple (Acer saccharinum) to create a group of maples known as the Freeman maples (Acer x freemanii). One of the cultivars I have seen is ‘Autumn Blaze.’ This cultivar has the good red color of the red maple parent plus the attractive leaf shape and tolerance for adverse conditions of the silver maple. I see them often in business parks. 

Another species that can offer dazzling red color is chalk maple (Acer leucoderme). This species resembles a small sugar maple with 5-lobed leaves that have wavy edges. The common name is based on the pale colored bark. The underside of the leaf is softly hairy, distinguishing it from sugar maple which is largely hairless.

Chalk maple (Acer leucoderme) leaves from Lisa's tree

Fall color range is yellow to orange to red, sometimes all at once on the same tree. A roadside tree (see first picture in this post) near me turns a brilliant red each fall while its neighbors are more orange-red. They make a spectacular group.

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum)
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is not native to Georgia but it is widely planted here for its reliable yellow-orange fall colors. Sugar maple seed matures in late summer and early fall, a trait that it shares with chalk maple, although sometimes there are years with no seeds. The 5-lobed leaves are familiar as the symbol of Canada where it is also native. Unlike the chalk maple, the back of the leaf is smooth and only the veins have hairs, if any.

Maple syrup comes from the sap of this tree. The tree is sometimes visited by sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker that drills for the sap; they do feed on other maples and other trees as well. The bark can blacken over time as a result of this activity.

Acer saccharum var. floridanum
Southern sugar maple is considered to be a subspecies of sugar maple (Acer saccharum var. floridanum). It is sometimes classified as Acer floridanum or, more rarely by a much older name, Acer barbatum

The leaf is very similar to chalk maple and sugar maple with a few hairs on the back side (but fewer than chalk maple). A local population in my neighborhood (including my yard) has clear yellow foliage with only occasional hints of orange.

Maples are a worthy part of local ecosystems where they are native. Research your conditions and see if one of these can find a place in your landscape.

Note: click on any picture to see it full size.

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