When I was a teen my family owned a resort on a small lake in New Hampshire. We rented eight cottages, weekly all summer, and because the cottages all spilled onto a common lawn and beach, we all interacted like one big family.
After closing that first season (circa 1976), we returned to Spofford Lake for a quiet Columbus Day Weekend. We’d been there only a few hours when the phone started ringing.
Nearby hotels, filled to the max, were calling around for lodging for an overflow of tourists seeking fall foliage. The cottages were not winterized, but desperate tourists came anyway. We rounded up blankets, and our guests were grateful; in fact, they might have had the best view ever with the blaze of colors in the mountains all around the lake.
That New England color comes primarily from the Sugar Maple. There are other red-leafers: Sumac, Blackgum, Red Maple. But many of the trees in Sugar Maple forests are evergreens and yellow-leafers, like Beech and Yellow Birch.
An Early Scare
Sugar Maple’s value – for tourism, maple syrup production, timber and wildlife -- can not be overstated. That’s why a scare dating to the 1980s led to widespread worry that Sugar Maples would go the way of American Chestnut or American Elm – completely wiped out because of some pest, disease or climate change.
Researchers were reporting “unusual dieback” and “mortality” of sugar maples. The evidence: abnormally small leaves, thinning crowns and early fall coloration, among others.
Indeed, a 1986 New York Times article headlined “Sugar Maple Faces Extinction Threat” quoted researchers warning that unless something was done to save Sugar Maples, “the delightful taste of maple syrup will remain but a memory.”
While warming temperatures continue to pose threats to the overall health of Sugar Maple trees (see Audubon Vermont), and probably will push their overall range northerly, the earlier concerns seem to have dissipated.
In 2010 the North American Maple Project reported “significant improvements in tree condition” and no evidence of long-term, widespread damage. While the trees did suffer stressors from insect defoliation, drought and root freezing, they reported, the damages were not permanent. Other trees, they also documented, were dying at the same rate as Sugar Maples.
In Your Backyard
Like most trees, the long-term health of Sugar Maples depends largely on situating them in the right spot.
Sugar Maples are highly shade tolerant, but the best color generally will be in sunny spots. They also prefer deep, well-drained soils and do not like shallow soils or swampy areas.
Once you’ve planted your Sugar Maple in a deep, rich area, maybe with a sandy loam or other well-drained site, make sure to cover the roots with fall leaves – what Bartlett Tree Experts refer to as the key to ensuring healthy roots. Even in 90-plus degree weather, they say, leaf mulch can keep the soil temperature in the 60s.
That mulch also provides the soil with microorganisms that promote root health and optimizes pore space to allow oxygen to get to the roots. The mulch should cover the roots but not the trunk. For more on proper tree planting, watch this video.
Growth and Fall Color
Sugar Maples are slow growing and often take 100 years or so to reach their mature size of 50 to 70 feet, or more. While canopies are narrower in the forest, to make room for each other, in an open area these trees can attain girths of 40 to 50 feet, branch tip to branch tip.
Fall color ranges from yellows, oranges, deep reds and purples. To get the color you’re looking for, visit Tree Talk Natives in the fall after the leaves have turned. Fall is also a great time to plant :).
Looking for Maple Syrup?
Check out Andy and Elisha Hurlbut’s farm, so far upstate New York it’s practically in Canada. It’s family owned with hundreds of acres of Sugar Maples.
Cotnoir, A. The End of Maple? Maple Sugaring Amid a Changing Climate, Audubon Vermont. April 1, 2021.
Davis, R. Tree Talk: Sugar Maple. Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay. June, 2021.
Sugar Maple: Acer saccharum, Bartlett Tree Experts, Sept. 6, 2022.
Sugar Maple: Acer saccharum. Garden Clips
“Sugar Maple Faces Extinction Threat,” The New York Times, Dec. 7, 1986.
Trees of the Adirondacks: Sugar Maple. https://wildadirondacks.org/trees-of-the-adirondacks-sugar-maple-acer-saccharum-Marshall.html