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Season of Trees at the Arboretum: Sugar maple

Orange and red maple tree sticking out above spruce branches.
Sugar maple is loved for its bright-colored fall leaves.

The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is all about trees. Here is a favorite, both for its jaw-dropping color and for the syrup we need on our pancakes. From narrow forms to fit tight spaces, to large and proud shade trees, there’s a sugar maple for every occasion.

Plus, we’ll tell you where and when to see the best color at the Arb this fall!

Sugar maple

Sugar maple (Acer saccharum), also known as rock maple or hard maple, is one of the best known trees in Minnesota. Long-lived and common to hardwood forests, its native range runs from Minnesota to Missouri, and east to Maine and Nova Scotia.

Though slow-growing, it does best in moist, well-drained, fertile soil. While preferring slightly acidic soils, it can handle alkaline. The forest understory also toughened sugar maples for shady locations. The main limitations for this species include not enough growing space, air pollution, excess salts and compacted soils.

Plant characteristics

  • Deciduous, leaves drop in the fall.
  • Height: typically 60-75 feet, with the potential for 100 to 120 feet, though smaller varieties have been introduced.
  • Width: variable, but usually ⅔ the height.
  • Has an upright oval or rounded form.
  • Young bark is thin and light gray, maturing to darker gray-brown with varied texture.
  • Leaves: 3 to 6 inches long and wide, usually 5 lobes, dark green in summer and bright yellow, orange or red in fall.
  • Buds: ⅛ to ¼ inch long, gray-brown, with smooth or hairy ends.
  • Flowers: perfect (male and female present), ¼ inch wide, hanging from 1- to 3-inch pedicels appearing before the leaves.
  • Fruit: smooth samara in pairs, 1 to 2 inches long, matures in fall, favored by squirrels.

Best growing conditions

In landscapes, it makes an excellent shade tree. Thanks to careful breeding and selection, cultivated varieties have shorter and narrower forms to accommodate smaller yards. It is also a welcome addition to hardwood forest restoration projects.

  • Hardiness zone: 3 to 8.
  • Full sun to full shade, it will grow from dense forest floors to reach sunlight.
  • Intolerant to flood or drought conditions.
  • Poor tolerance of salt or air pollution.
  • Sensitive to heavy traffic and soil compaction.
  • Recommended soil properties:
    • Soil pH: best in slightly acidic soil (6.8).
    • Moist, well-drained, fertile soil.
    • Tolerant of clay and limestone.
    • Have your soil tested by the U of M Soil Testing Lab.

Common problems

  • Prone to leaf spot diseases in wetter years, which is usually cosmetic and not lethal. Susceptible to verticillium wilt, which is often lethal.
  • Susceptible to borer insects, though usually in times of climate stress. 
  • Thin bark on younger trees can be susceptible to frost cracks as a result of freeze-thaw cycles. Protect trunks by applying tree wrap during the winter months, until the risk of frost has passed.

Visit What’s wrong with my plant? - Maple for a list of the most common pest problems in Minnesota.

Light green bunches of flowers on branches without leaves.
Spring flowers are bright chartreuse green and emerge before leaves.

A sugary treat from way back when

Its common names are based on the multiple benefits discovered over thousands of years. Ojibwe and Dakota people developed multiple methods of sap collection and syrup preparation, as did Native Americans further east. Today, the value of maple syrup production in the United States is over $140 million per year.

When used as lumber, it is often sold under the name “hard maple,” as it is heavy and durable. Bird’s eye maple and curly maple are from this species.

Perhaps the best known trait is its outstanding fall color. Bright yellow, orange, and red shades persist on sugar maples longer than many other species. When tourists visit New England states for fall color, they are usually looking at sugar maples.

The bark on this species can vary greatly. Younger trees are often light gray, while older trees can develop thick, brown plates.

Flowers emerge before the leaves appear. Though small, their greenish-yellow color stands out in early spring. Do not park your car or bicycle under a maple during this time, unless you like to wash it frequently. In the fall, pairs of winged seeds, called samara, appear, allowing children and adults to watch the helicopter-like way they drift downward.

Deer and squirrels can nibble on the branches and bark. Squirrels also feed on the seeds, buds, twigs, and leaves. You may also see mourning cloak, eastern comma, or red-spotted admiral butterflies, as the sugar from the sap is too good to pass up.

Cultivated varieties of sugar maple for Minnesota

Upright tree with bright red foliage.
Acer saccharum Fall Fiesta® fall color

Cultivated varieties are selected for size, color, and performance in Minnesota. We recommend buying from local nurseries, as Minnesota-grown plants are already adapted to our climate and soils, require less transportation and fuel costs, and are unlikely to introduce or spread invasive species from other parts of the country.

  • Apollo® - compact and columnar, 30 feet tall by 10 feet wide, excellent yellow-orange to coppery fall color
  • Fall Fiesta® - 50 to 70 feet tall by 50 feet wide, faster growing than other sugar maples, fall colors are yellow, orange, and red
  • Green Mountain® - 60 feet tall by 40 feet wide, dark green foliage in summer turns gold to scarlet in fall

The above varieties are listed in the Plant Information Online database, which offers plant and seed sources throughout North America.

Our favorite sugar maple at the Arb

Large stand of trees with bright orange foliage in a wooded area.
Acer saccharum ‘Legacy’ in brilliant fall color

Well, it’s hard to pick just one. The best stand of sugar maples, in my opinion, is next to the Bailey Shrub Walk, across from the Harrison Sculpture Garden on Three Mile Drive.

During the summer months, it is a calming shelter of deep green tones and plenty of shade. When cooler weather hits, watch out! The gold tones blend into orange and red, as the trees gently shed their leaves for color above and below. It is truly a sight to behold.

Sugar maple is on our Interactive Tree Trek map. To find one, click the layers icon in the top right, and add Tree Trek. The map will show you where to go, and give you a little info to take with you!

Erin Buchholz, Integrated Pest Management specialist, Minnesota Landscape Arboretum

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