Footsteps in the Forest

The red maple is one of the most common trees in the eastern portions of the United States, and nature lovers will certainly encounter it regularly. But it’s not only common — it’s also important and provides interesting lessons in forest succession.

But we’ll get back to that. Let’s start with the basics.

The Red Maple Tree: Basic Information

Height: 40 to 75 feet

Evergreen/Deciduous: Deciduous

Lifespan: A relatively short-lived tree that rarely exceeds 80 to 100 years of age.

Fall Foliage: True autumn show stopper. The leaves can be red, yellow, or orange, and are often spectacular.

Range: Throughout most of the eastern United States, as far west as Texas and Minnesota. Ranges north into southeastern Canada.

Typical Habitat: Very common, widespread, and adaptable species found in a variety of habitats. But they are most common and comfortable in low-lying areas with plenty of moisture.  

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Red Maples: A Sub-Climactic Species

Getting back to the succession tidbit we referenced earlier, red maples occupy an interesting part of the forest-succession spectrum. They’re often classified as a sub-climax species.

As a quick refresher: Forest succession is the process by which forests evolve over time.

They start out when a bunch of tiny sun-loving tree seeds germinate in a field. These are typically quick growers, who form a canopy within a few decades. Later, shade-tolerant species begin germinating amid the dappled light of the forest floor.

These slow-and-steady growers eventually out-compete the sun-loving trees. Eventually, they take over the canopy and broader forest, while also suppressing the growth of sun-loving species on the forest floor, courtesy of the shade they create.

The sun-lovers are usually called pioneer species, while the shade-tolerant, slow-growing species are referred to as climax species.

But red maples fall somewhere between these two extremes. Hence the term sub-climactic.

These trees can’t grow as quickly as sun-loving tuliptrees or pines do, so they aren’t especially awesome colonizers. However, while they can thrive in the dim light of the forest floor (and therefore aren’t excluded from mature forests), they never dominate the forest for centuries the way many oaks and beeches may. They simply don’t live long enough to do so.

The Red Maple: Identification Tips & Tricks

By and large, the red maple trees are easy to identify. And given their abundance, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice.

First of all, these trees usually bear three- or five-lobed leaves, which feature serrations around the entire leaf margin. They also have smooth, grey bark while young, which is somewhat reminiscent of a beech tree’s bark.

Further, even though it is deciduous, this species is often somewhat easy to identify year round — just look for the color red.

The flowers introduce bright red twinges to the bleak later winter or early spring landscape, while the seeds and stems continue to contribute red to the landscape throughout the warm season. Once fall arrives, the tree really comes into its own, as it produces glorious fall foliage, typically including at least some leaves that turn red.

The Red Maple: Additional Information

Thirsty for more great info on red maple trees? Check out these high-quality resources that are full of the good stuff.

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