Maple Trees – Which One Is For Your Landscape

Japanese malple leaves

Japanese maple leaves

Red maple leaves

Red maple leaves

Sugar maple leaves

Sugar maple leaves

Silver maple leaves

Silver maple leaves

If you have a maple in your yard, chances are it is one of the four we are going to discuss. If you are thinking of adding a maple tree, you will want to read this before you go out and buy one. Remember “fall is for planting,” so it is the perfect time to add a maple or two to your garden. And as an added bonus, they are on sale at many garden centers and big box hardware stores now. So go ahead and plant the maple tree you select.

Japanese Maple – These are classified as a small tree, as their mature height is rarely more than 20 to 25 feet. Now that would be the top end of the height scale, but by selecting one of the various types, you can get one that is mature at 2 feet to any height you want. Japanese maples not only come in a range of sizes, but a range of leaf colors from a pure green to a bright red with many various shades and variegations of the leaves. Also, there is a major group of weeping types. In our area we are blessed with growers who just grow these, and garden centers with a wide selection. Now these can be planted in full sun or an understory tree, if it is a green leafed selection (these are my favorites). But if the trees have variegated foliage, they need filtered shade. Like all maples, they like rich well drained soil, but I have seen the tree thrive planted in almost any soil type.

Red Maple – This is the native tree that is named for its red flowers in very early spring, but these trees are large and planted for shade and fall color. I have one gardening friend that thinks this is the greatest Southern landscape and shade tree, and another friend that thinks they are almost a trash tree. I have two of these trees in my front, and our community is using this as a street tree. For the best fall color I like the selection October Glory (red fall color) or Autumn Sunset (orange fall color). One of the reasons I think these work for our neighborhood is that we have a thin layer of soil and under that is sandstone, and because they are very fibrous rooted trees, they will take our conditions. These are tough trees that grow well, as long as they have adequate water during very dry conditions.

Sugar Maple – Considered by many the most beautiful of all our native maples, the fall color is the reason to grow this tree. Since many of these are seedling grown, the fall color can vary from almost an all yellow fall colored tree, to a mixutre of yellow and red leaves. While they are not easy to find, selections are available to get you a specific shape and fall color, but this is generally a special order in our area. In Trussville, there is a street tree planting that was done in the WPA era that still has some of the original planted sugar maples showing off every year. While they are considered a slow grower, once they are established, if they are in fertile soil, they grow an average of two to three feet a year. Most start off as a very upright tree, but as they age they form a beautiful globose canopy. These are native to the mountain regions of Alabama, but there is a small tree often called Southern sugar maple, that grows in masses along the banks of the Black Warrior river. It is classified as a small tree.

Silver Maple – Most horticulturists consider this the trash tree of the maples, but it is often sold in this area. They grow quickly, so they can be sold very cheap. This is the one you will see in big box stores and big box hardware stores on sale much cheaper in price than the other maples. Do not buy this tree. It is brittle, short lived, poor fall color, and is prone to leaf drop. If the back of the leaf is silver, you can be sure it is a silver maple, a tree you do not want in your garden. If you have one, go ahead and plant another tree in anticipation that this tree will be short lived.

While there are many other maples, read about their culture before you purchase one for your home landscape, to see if they will grow well in our climate and soil types.

John Floyd

John Floyd has been gardening--and learning about Birmingham area gardening--for more than 30 years. In addition to his day-to-day experience, John has degrees in horticulture from Auburn and Clemson Universities and was Editor-in-Chief of Southern Living.

16 thoughts on “Maple Trees – Which One Is For Your Landscape

  1. Good Morning John, this site was opening in 2015 and this is 2020, so you may not answer my question. I was wondering what is the life expectancy of a Maple? Which Maple would live the longest here in Alabama (St. Claire area).

  2. Hi John, I live in Huntsville and am having a hard time finding a maple tree that doesn’t grow to 30 or more feet. The deer eat my neighbors Japanese maple, so I would like a variety that gives great color, but that doesn’t get too big – maybe l0-18 feet high. Is there such a tree??? Thanks, Bonnie B.

  3. John, we have several October Glory maples in our yard in Birmingham that are gorgeous. Our next door neighbor has a mature maple that is a deep red color that we admire and wish we had one. Any guesses on what species that might be? Am I guilty of coveting my neighbor’s fall foliage?

    • They have over 1000 different cultivars and at reasonable prices. They very common ones and the hard to find ones. I only purchase from them. Biggest one that has been sent out has been a 5 gallon that was over an inch in caliper. As a matter of fact, Here’s one that fits your bill and is so beautiful ACER PALMATUM ‘MONTICELLO GARDENS’ DWARF JAPANESE MAPLE.

  4. I recently moved to a house that has a coral bark maple in the front yard, the former owners apparently pruned it for a number of years, I have not pruned but I noticed it is growing long branches and the trunk is about 6 inches in diameter this tree should be approx 20 ft high my question is will it ever look normal the trunk is only about 3ft high why do people prune trees this way I would like to see a tall tree.

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