The Red in Red Maple
Updated: Nov 9
The scientific name for Red Maple, Acer rubrum, always reminds me of the ominous word the boy keeps repeating in Stephen King’s The Shining – “redrum.” Doesn’t it??
This tree may as well be called red-rum because of all the red on this tree, and in a way it is because rubrum in Latin means red or ruddy.
Here’s the red:
In early spring bright red buds form on the ends of those twigs.
As the temperatures warm, those buds expand revealing red flowers, either as male stamen or female pistons, sometimes on the same tree.
After the stamens and pistons fertilize and fade, red winged seeds form in place of the female flowers.
Also in spring, as the seeds mature and eventually take flight, new leaves emerge, often in red or sometimes lime green with red tones.
Even in summer, while the tree is covered in green leaves, the petioles, or leaf stems, remain bright red.
Here’s the puzzler. You would think, with all the red on Red Maple, that those leaves, after a deep green summer, would turn consistently red in the fall.
Some do, while others provide brilliant orange or yellow, or a combination.
To get your pick of fall foliage, maybe choose your red maple in the fall when the leaves are showing their colors?
Red Maple makes an almost perfect shade tree for just about any landscape, regardless of its fall color. It grows best in moist areas and can tolerate wet soil, which makes them suitable for a rain garden or along stream banks and as a popular tree for wetlands restoration.
They grow relatively fast, maturing at 50 to 70 feet and living to be 100 to 200 years or so, which is short-lived compared to oaks.
Red Maples feed and shelter just about everyone while they’re here, though. Not only are they of special value to native bees and one of the earliest sources of spring pollen, they also serve as larval host to approximately 280 butterfly and moth caterpillars.
These larvae include the rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda), maple looper (Parallelia bistriaris) and Baltimore bomolocha (Bomolocha baltimoralis). Lady Bird Johnson further reports that the Cecropia Moth (Hyalophora cecropia) “specifically favors Red Maple.”
Birds also love Red Maple. Blogger Jean Potuchek, after visiting Paul Smith College in the Adirondacks, reports that birds nesting in Red Maple include the American redstart, black-backed woodpecker, downy woodpecker, purple finch, yellow-bellied sapsucker, hooded warbler, northern parula, alder flycatcher, veery, wood thrush, eastern wood-pewee, and Canada warbler – and probably a lot more.
Red Maple also holds the title as the tree with the greatest natural range, 1,600 miles up the East Coast and from Southern Newfoundland and Quebec to Ontario and northern Minnesota south to Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Texas, east to Florida. It’s a prolific seeder and will grow just about anywhere and on a wider range of soil types than any other forest tree.
Red Maple has a relatively low canopy – perfect for tire swings, shading picnic tables and creating ambiance for late-afternoon cook-outs. It even makes a decent street tree, tolerating compacted soil and pollution, although its shallow roots can pop through sidewalks.
Like apple pie and Not Dogs, give me my Red Maple.
Fun Fact: Native Americans used Red Maple as a sweetener, and the sap can be used to make Maple Syrup, although in lesser quantities than the Sugar Maple.
Acer rubrum. Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center. https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=acru
Acer rubrum. North Carolina Extension Gardener Plant Toolbox. https://plants.ces.ncsu.edu/plants/acer-rubrum/
Acer rubrum. USDA Southern Research Station. https://www.srs.fs.usda.gov/pubs/misc/ag_654/volume_2/acer/rubrum.htm
King, S. The Shining. Doubleday, 1977.
Potuchek, J. Jean’s Garden. “Whose Home Is This? The Red Maple as Habitat.” July 12, 2015.
ruber, rubra, rubrum. https://www.latin-dictionary.net/definition/33734/ruber-rubra-rubrum
Tallamy, D. Bringing Nature Home. Timber Press. April 1, 2009
Whitmeyer, Angelyn. Plant Portrait–Red Maple. Plant Identification Through Personal Identification.