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Acer rubrum – Red Maple. Life begins with the Samara

The red maple, Acer rubrum, is one of the great native trees of eastern North America. It can grow to 90 feet tall. Gardeners and landscape architects, myself included, can be forgiven for having the idea that all plants originate as three foot high saplings in black plastic pots. Plants, Acer rubrum included, have a seemingly endless variety of ways to ensure germination.

With the red maple, life begins with the samara.

Red maple seedpod - the samara or 'helicopter'.
Red maple seedpod – the samara or ‘helicopter’.

We used to call them helicopters as children, these strange and wonderful seedpods whirling out of the garden or forest canopy to the ground. In England, a samara is called a spinning jenny.

Samaras are a type of dry fruit. Wings on the samara allow seeds to ride the wind further away from the tree. The samara is a dispersal mechanism.

Giant trees don’t need seedlings springing up directly underneath. Samaras allow the seeds to be carried further away so the red maple will not compete with itself. It is possible, probable even, that the small samara we marveled at as children allowed the red maple to become one of the most dominant tree species in eastern North America.

The red maple is one of the most widely distributed hardwood tree species from Canada to the Gulf Coast. It is so-named due to the brilliant red fall foliage, but the red maple’s seedpods are also beautifully red in spring.

Red maple trees are highly adaptable to sites with poor soil. Acer rubrum is also called the swamp maple, probably because the red maple’s natural habitat includes oxygen-deprived wet sites such as swampy areas and stream banks. The red maple’s shallow root system is at home in wet places, but the red maple is well-adapted to normal soils, including upland forests.

The red maple’s seedpods, called samara, are winged and have two seeds. Elms also have samara.

The red maple is one of the earliest blooming hardwoods. The samaras soon follow the bloom and in late spring the brown dried versions we are familiar with come spiraling lazily to the ground, one of the simple pleasures of childhood (and adulthood).

One maple tree can release thousands of seeds. During World War II, the U.S. military developed airdrop packages capable of holding over 60 pounds of supplies based on research into maple samaras.

More information:
Winter hardiness zones: Zones 3-9

Native Distribution

Genus/speciesAcer rubrum
Common name(s)red maple
Of noteOne of the great trees of North America, the red maple has beautiful fall foliage. Grows 40-70 feet tall.
Fall coloryes
Water requirementsaverage, moist soil conditions
Soil qualityrich, well-drained, average
Suggested use(s)naturalized, woodlands
Hardiness zone(s)3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Deer resistantyes
Deciduous or evergreendeciduous
Flower colornon-applicable or insignificant
Exposurefull sun


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