By Suzanne Wodek
Acer rubrum, commonly called red maple, scarlet maple or soft maple, is a native, medium-sized deciduous tree that typically grows 40’–60’ tall with a rounded to oval crown. Acer from the Latin means sharp, and rubrum means red. Trees have red flowers in dense clusters in late March to early April before the leaves appear; two-winged seed pods, reddish stems and twigs, and red buds throughout summer; and, in fall, excellent, orange-red foliage color.
Red maples are easy to grow in average, medium to wet, well-drained soil in full sun to part shade. They can tolerate a wide range of soils including clay, but prefer moist, slightly acid conditions. They are very cold-hardy and make an excellent lawn, park or street tree; however, the trees’ shallow, flattened root systems may buckle nearby sidewalks or driveways if planted too close.
This is one of the first trees to show color in the fall. The nation’s largest red maple is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This tree was declared a champion in 1997 by American Forests, a national nonprofit conservation organization, and is listed in the National Register of Big Trees as being 141’ tall and just over 7’ in diameter at 4’ above the ground.
Native Americans used the bark as an analgesic for inflamed eyes and cataracts, and as a remedy for hives and muscular aches. A tea brewed from the inner bark was used for treating coughs and diarrhea. Maple syrup was made from boiling the sap. Pioneers made cinnamon-brown and black dyes from a bark extract. Today, this light-colored wood is used in the manufacture of furniture, woodenware, cabinets and flooring, and as pulpwood.
Red maples have no serious insect or disease problems. The abundance of the early production of pollen is an important food source for bees and pollen-dependent insects. The seeds, buds and flowers are eaten by various wildlife species. Squirrels and chipmunks are known to store the seeds for winter consumption.
The Botanical Gardens, located at 151 W.T. Weaver Boulevard, is a nonprofit organization housing a collection of plants native to the Southern Appalachian Mountains. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated and memberships are encouraged. Check AshevilleBotanicalGardens.org for hours and a variety of education programs.