The scarlet of the maples can shake me
like a cry
Of bugles going by.
William Bliss Carman
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) is not suited for new subdivisions or street tree plantings, says Possibility Place Nursery Catalog. Obviously, this Sugar Maple in my neighborhood did not get the message. It is, however, mostly true. Sugar Maples don’t like restricted growing areas in compacted dry soil with full sun all day–typical of parkways and newer subdivisions. In addition, they’re subject to salt damage. This tree is doing well because the neighborhood is a hundred years old with deep mesic soil and large parkways.
Sugar Maple is a majestic tree, growing 60-75’ tall in the landscape. Its dark green leaves turn to blazing scarlet in the fall, beginning early October and lasting the whole month. In nature it is found on east and north-facing slopes and undisturbed mesic woods.
It is native to the northeastern portion of our country, west to western Illinois.
Black Maple (Acer nigrum) is a close cousin of the Sugar Maple, but seldom seen in my area. While it closely resembles the Sugar Maple, it is easily recognized by the drooping edges of its leaves. In autumn, the leaves turn to dazzling gold rather than the scarlet of the Sugar Maple.
It, too, is a majestic tree, growing 60’-75’ tall. Its natural range begins and ends further west than the Sugar Maple, from the Allegheny Mountains to South Dakota, Iowa, and Arkansas. Alas, it doesn’t seem to be readily available in commerce.
Like all trees, these maples should be underplanted with sedges and wildflowers. They cast a deeper shade than oak trees, so a different pallet from what is used under oak trees must be chosen.
These sedges are found under Sugar and Black Maple in mesic woods: Short-headed Bracted Sedge (Carex cephalaphora), Awned Graceful Sedge (C. davisii), Grass Sedge (C. jamesii), Straight-styled Wood Sedge (C. radiata), and, pictured above, Long-beaked Sedge (C. sprengellii). These are available at Native Plant Nurseries. Wild Ginger (Asarum canadensis) and various ferns add interest.
Fill in with spring ephemerals and other spring-blooming wild flowers. Pictured above is Bloodroot in bloom, plus the attractive foliage of Virginia Waterleaf and Early Meadowrue.
For autumn plant White Snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), Zigzag Goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis), and Blue-stemmed Goldenrod (Solidago caesia).
The most popular maple in this country, unfortunately, is Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)–not native here, but to northern Europe, introduced to the United States in 1756. It, too, is a beautiful tree and has the advantage of growing well in compacted and/or clay soils and tolerating heat and drought, but it doesn’t play well with others. Its dense crown and shallow roots discourage anything from growing beneath it. In addition, it has allelopathic properties, releasing toxins that inhibit the growth of anything other than Norway Maple seedlings in its vicinity.
Norway Maples disperse thousands of seeds via samaras every summer. One finds seedlings everywhere. The gardener weeds them out (at least most gardeners do) but unless a woods is stewarded, preferably by a controlled burn, the seedlings can take hold and eventually they will displace the natives.
The Manual of Woody Plants, Fourth Edition, by Michael Dirr, lists 34 cultivars of Norway Maples. Most nurseries carry at least half a dozen. I strongly urge you NOT to buy or plant them. Our native Sugar and Black Maples are part of a community of plants, birds, and insects that is self-sustaining.
Do you want to impress people with your botanical knowledge? The leaves of Sugar and Norway Maple are similar–how do you differenciate them? Pluck a leaf from the tree–Norway Maple will have milky juice, while that of Sugar Maple is clear.