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Red Maple
red maple tree
Red maple, photographed at Daggerwing Nature Center, Burt Aaronson South County Regional Park, Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, in August 2013.
red maple tree
 

There are few sights as glorious as a stand of red maples on a bright, early winter's evening in South Florida. Mix in some rusty looking cypress and you'll think you're spending a fall day in Vermont. Well, almost.

But this tree, known as Acer rubrum to scientists, has much more than good looks going for it. Native Americans depended on red maple for everything from food to medicine to building materials. It was so important medicinally, that one tribe considered red maple sacred. In the second decade of the 21st century, we still find it useful in many ways.

Red maple is a Florida native, found throughout the state as far south as Broward and mainland Monroe counties, the extreme southern limits of its range. It is the only maple tree native to South Florida and it's one of the few trees in the region to put on a spectacular fall display before dropping its leaves.

Red maple the most widespread of any tree in eastern North America. It's range covers the eastern United States. and Canada as far north as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and west to Minnesota, Oklahoma and Kansas. The feds also include Oregon as part of red maple's native range.

First thing to know about red maple is that it has an affinity for water, usually found along the banks of streams and rivers and in and along marshes and swamps. Second thing is that red maple can vary widely in its looks, not surprising considering its wide range. Officially three different varieties are recognized these days, but many more have been proposed over the years.

Under optimal conditions, it can be a huge tree, reaching as high as 120 feet, with a diameter of four feet. Generally, though, it will top out at half that at most. The red maple's height down here is somewhat limited unless its very near water. The leaves have the classic maple leaf shape, deep, pointed lobes, with serrated edges, but the number of lobes can vary from three to five depending on variety.

 
 
red maple
 

New foliage is brilliant red, turning less so as it matures. In fall — late fall to early winter here — the tree can turn various shades and mixes of red, yellow and orange. It flowers and bears fruit in the spring throughout most of its range, but in Florida, "spring" means December and January, depending on how far south the tree is. The fruit is a "winged" seed typical of maple trees. Some animals, particularly birds and squirrels eat the seeds. Cavity nesting birds, including northern flicker woodpeckers, screech owls and wood ducks find homes in red maple.

As we noted above, red maple was extremely important to the lives of Native Americans. The Algonquin and Abnaki used the sap to make sugar or as a sweetener. The Seminoles used it to make yokes for their oxen, arrow heads and spoons. Many tribes used red maple to make an eyewash. The Iroquois dried the bark and ground it into a flour to make breads and cakes. Native tribes would use red maple to make a wash for their traps, to remove the scent of an animal they had caught in it. They would make remedies for dysentery, hives and cramps. They would use it in basket-making, furniture and as lumber. The Ojibwa saw it as sacred and used it to decorate their medicine lodges. We still use red maple for lumber but moreso in landscaping, as a shade tree, accent, buffer and more. It might have some utility in restoring stripmines in Florida and elsewhere.

Other name for red maple include swamp maple and scarlet maple. It is a member of Aceraceae, the family of maple trees.

Photographs by David Sedore
 
 
red maple seeds
red maple leaf
 
red maple flowers
 
An island of red maples and cypress in winter at Green Cay.   red maples in winter
 
florida distribution map
  United States Department of Agriculture distribution maps for red maple.  
u.s. distribution map
 
Links for Red Maple
 
 
Unless otherwise stated, all photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without their express permission.