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Here is a maple fit for almost every landscape, thanks to its adaptability, size, and above all fall color. It grows on more kinds of soil than any other forest tree of North America, from dry, pebbly ridges, to wet, low margins of ponds and swamps (one of its names is Swamp Maple). It grows in shade and full sun and the many kinds of light in between.
The native range of the red maple extends over the eastern half of the U.S. and southern Canada (to Zone 3), with excursions on the west side of the Mississippi River, but thanks to nursery folk and gardeners there are trees across the U.S., except the Gulf Coast states, because red maple does not tolerate high temperatures, especially at night.
Red maple has charms - for example, the flowers, which bloom early. Though tiny, they hang on long, dangling stems and gather in loose red clusters the size of a golf ball, easy to see on the branches, which are usually bare so early in spring. The bark is handsome too, almost smooth, except for fissures on old trees, and bright ash gray.
The flowers give way to big crops of seeds called samaras. Each samara resembles a wing and bears an oval seed at one end. When a samara falls, it spins horizontally, and the wing carves the air, providing enough lift to slow the samara’s descent. If there’s a breeze a samara can land far from the tree. It's an elegant way to spread the species.
But fall color is the great attraction of the red maple (as it is for many maples). The leaves turn yellow, orange-red, red, or red-purple, depending on the tree. The fall color arrives early, almost first among maples.
The species is variable and nursery folk have found interesting seedlings of many forms, sizes and colors, (almost too many). There are narrow, column-like trees (‘Columnare’ and ‘Armstrong,’ for example), and trees that combine dense canopies with especially vivid fall color (‘Red Sunset’ and the smaller 'October Glory’ to name just two). There may be a dwarf form called ‘Globosum,’ but I have not seen a source.
Given the vast range of red maple, the National Phenology Network has named it a “calibration” species. USA-NPN volunteers throughout North America observe calibration species and record the dates of events in their life cycles. For red maple, the events include first green color in spring, first flowers, first seeds, and first fall color. Someday we gardeners will watch our red maples to time when we sow peas and we’ll be using the data collected by USA-NPN.
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