If you've been on the lookout for great fall color, check out our native red maple. Each autumn the leaves of these trees erupt into a blaze of yellow, orange, and red. The colorful show lasts for several weeks.
As a native plant, red maple is also a favorite of local wildlife. It is an abundant seed source and also blooms in the winter, when flowers are rarer. Birds in particular are attracted to this inviting tree.
Red maple (Acer rubrum) is usually found in USDA Hardiness Zones 4A through 9B. Gardeners in South Florida should not be discouraged, however. Wild populations of red maple exist in wet areas as far south as mainland Monroe County.
At maturity, red maples can be 60 to 75 feet tall and 25 to 35 feet wide. Away from water sources and in warmer climates they are often smaller. Regardless of final size, red maples form an irregular, round, upright crown. The shade beneath is moderate but raised roots can make mowing difficult. Proper mulching can help level out the ground below the canopy.
Of course the most notable feature of red maple is its colorful, deciduous foliage. For best fall color and performance, look for an improved variety that's suited for Florida. 'Florida Flame' has brilliant red fall color. The leaves of 'Summer Red' start off red in spring and then turn yellow, orange, or purple before they drop. 'Red Sunset' has good fall color, too, and is the best cultivar for the coastal south. 'Autumn Flame' also has very good fall color and reaches only 45 feet. Another cultivar on the small side is 'Gerling.' This variety reaches only 35 feet, a good choice for smaller landscapes. More cultivars and hybrids are listed in the publication "Acer rubrum: Red Maple" on Ask IFAS.
Come spring, your red maple tree will put on yet another show. This tree flowers between January and March, when blooms are scarce. Beautiful red flowers and fruits emerge beginning in late winter, before the new leaves. The fruits are two-winged seeds, popular with native birds and other wildlife.
Planting and Care
Also known as "swamp maple," red maples are naturally found in swampy areas. This tree does best in wet, acidic soil with high organic matter. They will grow in other locations if they receive adequate irrigation. Gardeners in South Florida will need to irrigate, particularly in the dryer months of the year.
As a swamp plant, red maple will grow in partial shade but prefers full sun. Acidic soil conditions are best; trees become chlorotic and manganese deficient at pH levels above 7.2. They are not salt tolerant, either. Otherwise red maple is fairly tolerant of different soil conditions.
Red maples have a fast growth rate and require pruning to develop a strong structure. Remove branches that compete with the central leader. In general no branch should grow to be larger than half the diameter of the trunk. Branches that reach out at a wide angle from the trunk are the least prone to breakage.
Acer rubrum tolerates southern heat, sand, and pests well. In Florida it out-performs sugar maple, silver maple, Japanese maple, and Norway maple. Most pest issues in red maple are mild and are usually controlled by predatory insects. Borers can become a problem in less healthy trees. Some fungal infections during the rainy season can be a issue, too. Applying a fungicide as the leaves open in the spring is usually enough to avoid infection.
By far the most common issue in southern-growing red maples is "scorch." Scorch occurs when trees do not receive adequate water. When this happens, portions of the leaves die between the veins, especially in warm, windy weather. Root-system issues are the most common culprits. Choose a site well suited to this water-loving species. Look out for girdling roots, too, and check the root ball for circling roots before you plant.
For more information on red maple please contact your county Extension office.