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Maple trees or shrubs can be found on several continents around the world, but these useful plants have a special place in the hearts and lives of those of us in the United States and Canada. We love them for many purposes: shade, ornamentals, lumber, firewood and syrup.
Homesteaders use maples and other hardwood trees for most of the above purposes as well as for projects more specific to farming and independent living — saplings for bean poles and poultry perches and other craftwork, leaves for banking buildings, and more. Sometimes it is important to differentiate between species. But even when the particular species does not matter, it is always nice to have some knowledge about any maple trees surrounding the homestead.
Of the many types of maple tree in North America, one of the best known and most loved is the sugar maple. Known as a rock maple, hard maple, or its Latin nomenclature Acer saccharum, this tree can be found growing naturally in most of the northeastern U.S. and eastern Canada.
The sugar maple is prized for its sap, which is harvested in early spring and boiled down into maple syrup or further processed into maple cream or candy. This tree is most people’s first choice for maple syrup, even though other varieties of maples—as well as other genera of hardwood trees—can be and often are tapped for syrup and confections. The sap of the sugar maple generally takes the least time and energy to boil down, requiring 40 quarts of sap to render one quart of finished syrup. The sap-to-syrup ratio for other trees can be as high as 80:1, making the sugar maple a more economical and practical choice. The taste of sugar maple sap is often considered superior, as well, and it is the most plentiful maple species in some areas.
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In addition to syrup production, the sugar maple is often harvested for its wood value. It is prized for flooring and furniture stock, particularly “bird’s eye” or curly-patterned varieties, and is commonly used for firewood and occasionally for pulp.
Sugar maples also make lovely landscaping trees. These medium-sized trees with widespread roots make excellent shade trees, provide wildlife habitat, and display stunning multicolored fall foliage.
Another common maple species is the red maple, or Acer rubrum. Known also as the swamp, water or soft maple, this tree can be found across most of eastern North America. It is frequently tapped for syrup, sometimes intentionally and sometimes by accident. Some red maples offer a sap ratio that is similar to sugar maples and just as tasty, and it can be challenging to tell the trees apart without leaves or buds present for clues. The subtle differences in the bark are challenging for most people to discern.
As the nicknames suggest, red maples do not mind wet feet and are often found in swampy areas. They display brilliant foliage twice a season — once in the spring with stunning red flowers, some of the earliest in my region of New England — and again in fall with gorgeous scarlet and orange leaves.
Their fiber is softer than that of sugar maples, making them less prized for their wood overall but still often used for firewood and pulp. A good all-around homestead tree, red maples also make wonderful ornamentals and animal habitat.
Silver maple, or Acer saccharinum, is known by many other names, including creek, soft, water, white and silverleaf maple. This large tree is native to most of the central and eastern United States, and often cultivated far beyond that, making it an extremely common maple species. The silver maple can be easily identified by its distinctive leaves, which look more like a five-toed chicken foot than the classic maple leaf of the Canadian flag. This tree is often found along riverbanks and at the edges of wetlands.
The silver maple’s fiber is relatively soft and less durable than harder species, making it less sought-after for wood, but is a mainstay for landscaping in public parks and private yards. As with most maple species, it can be tapped for syrup as availability requires. It sports soft yellow foliage in fall and delicate clusters of spring flowers in shades of yellow or pink.
Acer pensylvanicum, commonly known as the striped maple or moosewood, can be found from the eastern provinces of Canada to the upper elevations of northern Georgia. This is a smaller variety of maple, sometimes no larger than a shrub, which thrives in the understory. It prefers hillsides and rocky slopes and is usually found in forests of predominantly hardwood but does sometimes mix with conifers.
The white and green stripes of the striped maple bark distinguish it from other maple species. Its goose-foot-shaped leaves turn pale yellow in autumn, and its spring flowers are bright yellow.
The striped maple’s primary value is aesthetic, but it adds broad dimension and wildlife support to natural forests and managed areas. It grows quickly and can be considered a nuisance tree when allowed to grow out of control.
The mountain maple, or Acer spicatum, is also a small bushy species found in northern regions of the eastern United States and Canada. Like the striped maple, this type of maple grows in dense thickets on wet slopes. It is of little value to humans, but provides superb cover and forage for a wide variety of forest wildlife.
The Acer negundo, also known as ashleaf maple or boxelder, is another smaller species of maple. It can be found across much of the eastern two-thirds of the continent and in pockets everywhere in North America. Fast-growing and short-lived, the boxelder can thrive in a variety of conditions and takes hold so quickly that it is considered invasive in some areas. Boxelder leaves look more like that of an ash tree than a maple — obovate and small-toothed — hence the name.
Boxelders can be tapped for syrup and are often planted as ornamentals, but are of marginal value for other uses. The wood is light and soft, and can be harvested for pulp.
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Acer macrophyllum is aptly described by its common names, bigleaf maple and Oregon maple. This large tree with leaves that can span nearly a foot across is found along the Pacific northwest coast, from Alaska to California and as far inland as Idaho.
The bigleaf maple has many uses. Its dense wood is prized for furniture stock as well as for smaller fine-woodworking products such as guitar bodies, piano frames, gun stocks and veneer. It provides great browse for animals, particularly in the sapling stage, and grows into a beautiful shade tree. Its sap-to-syrup ratio is similar to that of the sugar maple, making it feasible for syruping, but does taste somewhat different from its east coast counterpart.
Bigleaf maple foliage turns to brilliant golds and yellows in fall, and boasts showy yellow flowers in spring.
The Norway maple, or Acer platanoides, is not native to North America, and is generally considered to be invasive. Often planted in yards, parks and along sidewalks for its aesthetic and shade qualities, it has escaped into the forest across much of the United States.
Once in the wild, the Norway maple crowds out native plants. It is fast-growing in a wide variety of conditions, has shallow roots that suck moisture away from other plants, and its dense canopy prevents understory vegetation from thriving.
Probably the most distinctive and attractive feature of the Norway maple is its purple leaves. However, the leaf color does not carry over to offspring, resulting in an overabundance of aggressive plain green maple trees with which native flora cannot compete.
Norway maples have very little practical value beyond ornamentation, but can be used for firewood in lieu of better quality choices.
Whether you value trees for syrup, beauty, firewood, lumber, shade or animal habitat, there is sure to be a maple species that is just right for your needs. The maple tree has served homesteaders, suburban residents, forest workers, and nature enthusiasts for generations, and will continue for years to come.
Which is your favorite type of maple tree? Share your thoughts on maples in the section below: