Red Maple Living the American Dream

Maples add fall color along a road in southwestern Virginia.

Most foresters do not bat an eye at a red maple.  They’re common and do not offer much, if any, timber value.  But, red maple is one of the most widespread trees in eastern North America, extending from Nova Scotia to Florida and west to Wisconsin and Texas, showing one of the broadest tolerances to varied climatic conditions and soil types.  Red maple can be found in the majority of nontropical forest cover types recognized in the eastern United States, so by sheer numbers, this tree is important.

Despite being commonplace, red maple offers under-recognized beauty.  Red maples’ early red blooms herald spring well before the risk of frost is gone or the leaves appear on any trees.  In late spring and summer, the silver backs of the leaves ripple in breezes.  And, in the fall, the vermillion leaves add rich color to the landscape.  Red maple is the American dream, our diamond in the rough.

Red maple flowers are the first blooms to herald spring before leaves are on the trees.

At a time when conservationists and ecologists are raising awareness about declines in a variety of tree species, red maple the opportunist has increased in numbers over the past century.  A variety of reasons why red maples increased are speculated, including decreases in fire frequency, increased forest clearing and cutting, increases in deer abundance, and loss of American chestnut.  Some combination of these factors is likely facilitating this change.  Foresters are understandably concerned by this increase because the low-value timber of red maple has replaced many high-value species, such as oaks and chestnut.  But, I gotta say, thank goodness at least one native tree is doing well out there.

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