I’ve been a maple fan since I saw my first burgundy leafed Japanese maple in Marie Daly’s front yard in Longview. She called it a red maple, so I soon ordered two red maples from an advertisement I saw in a newspaper or magazine. They arrived bare root and I planted them in our backyard. I quickly realized that red maples were technically Acer rubrum, a native American shade tree, and Mrs. Daly’s “red maple” was an Acer palmatum, a smaller, ornamental Japanese species. To maker matters worse, my mail order red maples turned out to be silver maples (Acer saccharinum) which is an inferior ornamental species to both, so I later cut them down since they provide no spring, summer, or fall color.
Maples do best with a bit of shade from the hot afternoon soon, a deep soaking irrigation about once every two weeks during June, July, and August, and having their trunks wrapped with tree wrap for the first few years of their life in your landscape to avoid all-to-common, sun scald. We certainly aren’t New England, but these are the species you are most likely to encounter in Texas.
Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum): Bigtooth maples are essentially northern sugar maples that evolved in a hotter, drier, more alkaline setting. They still benefit from regular moisture during the summer, as their streamside habitat indicates. Though not always showy, bigtooth maples can sport foliage of yellows through oranges and reds during the fall. They are hard to locate in the nursery trade but are worth the search. Visit the “Lost Maples” area of the Texas Hill Country for a special treat and to see these in their native habitat. They can also be found in the Chisos, Davis, and Guadalupe Mountains.
Boxelder (Acer negundo): This native “maple” is common along streams and fence rows in much of Texas. It’s our only maple with compound foliage. Unfortunately, it has little to offer to Texas gardeners, with a short life span, almost no fall color, and foliage that is prone to burning and falling throughout the year. It also has weak wood and narrow branching which means they are prone to collapsing during storms and old age. There is a pink and white variegated clone for those that want a challenge.
Caddo Maple (Acer saccharum “Caddo”): The Caddo maple is a special form of sugar maple that is native to southern Oklahoma. It is much more adapted to the drier, more alkaline parts of Texas than the northern sugar maple which won’t survive the summers in Texas. With decent soil and some summer irrigation it can make a medium sized shade tree with attractive golden or peachy fall color. It’s difficult to find in the nursery trade but well worth the wait.
Chalk Maple (Acer leucoderme): This rare native of deep East Texas provides the best fall color of our native “sugar maples.” Its autumn hues generally range in the orange to red range, colors generally reserved for red maples and Japanese maples. Being native to the southeastern U.S., it prefers acid, well-drained soils, and regular moisture during dry summers. It’s typically a small understory tree. It too is rare in commerce but can occasionally be purchased from specialty nurseries dealing in native Texas plants.
Freeman’s Maple (Acer x freemanii): This red maple-silver maple cross inherits the fast growth and cut leaves of the silver maple and the beautiful fall colors of the red maple. ‘Autumn Blaze’ is the most common cultivar in the trade, but all are worth growing in the eastern third of Texas.
Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum): Japanese maples are one of the most popular small ornamental trees in the entire world. Though they prefer the acid soils of East Texas with regular moisture, they are grown throughout the state as picturesque small trees in partly shaded, well drained environs. They can also be grown in large containers with regular irrigation. There are literally hundreds of cultivars to choose from. The grafted burgundy leafed, weeping, and cut leafed types are the most popular but the standard green leafed species from seed is the easiest to grow. The best collection of Japanese maples in the state can be found in the Ruby Mize Azalea Garden at SFA Gardens in Nacogdoches, which boasts over one hundred different cultivars. The Dallas Arboretum has also assembled an impressive collection as has the Tyler Botanical Garden in the Tyler Rose Garden.
Mexican Sugar Maple (Acer skutchii): This is the rarest sugar maple in North America. It was stranded thousands of years ago in Mexico and Guatemala, where it naturally developed heat tolerance. Of all the “southern” sugar maples, it looks the most like what we see on the Canadian flag. It has very large, winged samaras (seed), yellow to occasionally peachy fall color, and appears to be alkaline tolerant. It too is very uncommon in the trade right now but hopefully will be more available one day.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum rubrum): When you admire the beautiful shots of spectacular fall color in New England, it’s normally the red maples that are putting on the most spectacular show. The species name “rubrum” hints at what’s in store. It makes a medium sized shade tree. Acer rubrum drummondii (swamp red maple) is common in southeast Texas and sports velvety white undersides to its leaves. Though it has showier blooms in the spring, sometimes rivaling redbuds, it is known for less spectacular fall color. Acer rubrum trilobum (trilobed red maple) is more common in the rest of East Texas and sports smaller, three lobed leaves with smooth, white undersides and attractive typical red maple fall color.
Shantung Maple (Acer truncatum): I first saw this Chinese maple years ago at a test garden at Kansas State University with Dr. Steve George and Dr. Jerry Parsons, where it was the only maple that didn’t have burned and tattered foliage in the full sun during the summer. It has since been designated a Texas Superstar due to its adaptability to the majority of Texas. Shantung maple provides a similar delicate appearance as that of a Japanese maple but with a much tougher constitution. The new leaves appear in the spring with a maroon or orange cast, turn shiny green for summer, and then shades of yellow, orange, red, or burgundy in the fall. It makes a small to medium sized tree and will grow in sun or part shade. ‘Fire Dragon’ has reliable dark red foliage and was introduced by Metro Maples in Fort Worth. ‘Baby Dragon’ has more of a weeping habit and yellow fall color.
Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum): Though often sold in Texas, silver maple is one of our least desirable maples. It does best with acidic, well drained soils and regular moisture to keep its foliage from turning chlorotic and burned. Silver maple produces very little fall color in Texas and has weak wood and narrow branching angles that lead to broken limbs.
Southern Sugar Maple (Acer floridanum): In my area of deep East Texas, southern sugar maples are one of the dominant trees along the woodland streams. Sometimes known as Florida maple and Acer barbatum, it is a more heat and drought tolerant descendant of the northern sugar maple. It is best adapted to acid, well-drained soils with regular irrigation and can grow into a medium sized shade tree. Southern sugar maples generally turn golden yellow in the fall with blushes of peach during ideal years. It is also uncommon in the trade but occasionally available from nurseries specializing in native plants.
Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum): Another Chinese maple, this one has smallish three lobed leaves and unusual exfoliating bark. Although more adapted to the acidic soils of East Texas, it has been grown with some success in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It’s a healthy small to medium sized tree that typically turns yellow, orange, or red each fall.