As a group, only oaks rival maples for usefulness in the gardenand there's hardly a place in the South where some kind of maple won't grow. The major limiting factors are extended summer heat or drought and lack of winter cold. Maples come in many shapes and sizes; among them, you'll find large and midsize shade trees, small specimen trees, and dwarf, weeping kinds the size of a shrub. What really sets these trees apart, though, is their spectacular autumn foliage in warm shades of red, orange, and yellow. Color can be quite variable, especially among seedling trees, so shop while the trees are showing their fall color.
Most maples do better when the soil stays moist, though just about all prefer well-drained soil. (A. rubrum is an exception, doing fine in boggy soil.) Large maples can be difficult to garden beneath; in addition to casting dense shade, they grow shallow roots that compete with other plants for water and nutrients. The roots can also crack and lift pavement and invade water and sewer lines.
Medium to large maples need little pruning. For smaller types, prune to accentuate the natural form. Avoid pruning in late winter or early spring, as cuts will bleed sap. Prune in summer or early winter instead.
A. buergerianum. TRIDENT MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native to China and Japan. Grows to 2025 ft. high and about as wide. Roundish crown of 3-in.-wide, glossy green, three-lobed leaves that are paler green beneath. Fall color usually red, sometimes orange or yellow. Attractive, flaking bark on older wood. Low, spreading growth; stake and prune to make it branch high. A decorative, useful patio tree and favorite bonsai subject.
A. capillipes. SNAKEBARK MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. Native to Japan. Moderate growth rate to 30 ft. tall and wide. Young branches are olive-green with white stripes. Shallowly three-lobed leaves are 35 in. long, turn scarlet in fall. Does better in partial shade.
A. freemanii. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Hybrid between A. rubrum and A. saccharinum. Fast growing and resistant to storm damage.
'Autumn Fantasy'. Oval. 50 ft. tall and 40 ft. wide. Dependable red fall color for warm zones.
'Celebration'. Oval. 50 ft. tall and 35 ft. wide. Yellow to orange in fall.
'Redpointe'. Oval. 45 ft. tall and 30 ft. wide. Red in fall.
'Scarlet Sentinel'. Broadly columnar. 50 ft. tall and half as wide. Yellow-orange fall color.
A. griseum. PAPERBARK MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native to China. Grows to 25 ft. or higher; may be half to equally as wide as tall. In winter it makes a striking picture with bare branches angling out and up from main trunk and reddish bark peeling away in paper-thin sheets. Late to leaf out in spring. Leaves are divided into three coarsely toothed, 112- to 212-in.-long leaflets, dark green above, silvery below. Inconspicuous red flowers in spring develop into showy winged seeds. Foliage turns brilliant red in fall.
A. japonicum. FULLMOON MAPLE. Deciduous shrub or tree. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. Native to Japan. To 2030 ft. high, with equal or greater spread. Nearly round, 2- to 5-in.-long leaves cut into 7 to 11 lobes. Give regular moisture, part shade. For the tree often sold as golden fullmoon maple, see A. shirasawanum 'Aureum'.
'Aconitifolium'. FERNLEAF FULLMOON MAPLE is a slow-growing, small selection (to just 1012 ft. tall and wide) with deeply cut leaves (almost to the leafstalk); each lobe is also cut and toothed. Fine fall color where adapted; nice specimen tree.
'Ed Wood'. Reaches only 20 ft. tall but has larger leaves, big enough to appear tropical. Orange to red fall color.
'Emmit's Pumpkins'. Upright growth to 12 feet. Large green leaves with bronze overlay in early spring. Fall color is orange.
'Green Cascade'. Cascading form that rarely reaches 5 ft. tall. Foliage is very deeply cut. Fall color is orange, yellow, and red.
A. negundo. BOX ELDER. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to most of U.S. The species is a weed tree of many faultsit seeds readily, hosts box elder bugs, suckers badly, and is subject to breakage. Fast growing to 60 ft. (usually less) and as wide or wider. Leaves divided into three to nine oval, 2- to 5-in.-long leaflets with toothed margins. Yellow in fall. Several selections improve on the species.
'Flamingo'. White and pink leaf markings. Requires some shade in Lower and Coastal South.
'Sensation'. Slower growth (to 30 ft. tall, 25 ft. wide) and better branch structure than the species. Does not sucker. Good deep pink fall color.
'Variegatum'. VARIEGATED BOX ELDER. Best in part shade. Not as large or weedy as the species. Leaf colora combination of green and creamy whitemakes this selection a standout. Prune out growth that reverts to green. Large, pendent clusters of white fruit are spectacular.
A. palmatum. JAPANESE MAPLE. Deciduous shrub or tree. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to Japan and Korea. Growing 1520 ft., with equal or greater spread; normally multiple stemmed, airy, and graceful. Leaves 24 in. long, deeply cut into five to nine toothed lobes. All-year interestyoung spring growth is bright green, green with red edges, or glowing red. Summer's leaves are soft green, and fall foliage is scarlet, orange, or yellow. In winter, slender leafless branches in greens and reds provide interest. Japanese maples tend to grow in flat, horizontal planes, so pruning to accentuate this growth habit is easy. Plants fare best in filtered shade, although full sun can be satisfactory in Upper and Middle South, and in some instances even the Lower South.
From simple seedling trees with bold green or red palmate leaves to delicate lacy-leaved selections, these maples have uncommon grace and character. While seedling trees are handsome, they often lack the predictably superior traits of varieties. In recent years, hundreds of grafted forms have become available, meaning new and once-rare selections are now readily available. Here are some of the best ones for the South. Many smaller ones do well in larger pots.
'Beni-otake'. Vase-shaped, small tree to 12 ft. Leaves have long, thin lobes. Red color holds well into summer and turns crimson in fall. Tolerates full sun into Lower South. Name means Red Bamboo.
'Bihou'. Vigorous, upright growth to 20 ft. Bark on young branches and twigs turns bright yellow or orange in winter.
'Bloodgood'. Vigorous, upright growth to 15 ft., growing wider than tall with age. Foliage is deep red in spring and summer, scarlet in fall. Blackish red bark. Holds red color in summer. Give partial shade in Lower South.
'Butterfly'. Small tree to 10 ft., with small bluish-green leaves edged in white. Cut out growth that reverts to plain green. Best in partial shade.
'Crimson Queen'. Shrubby, 46 ft. Finely cut reddish leaves turn bronze in summer, then scarlet in fall. Mushroom-shaped mound with cascading branches. 'Ever Red' and 'Garnet' are similar selections.
'Emperor I'. Upright tree to 15 ft. Buds open late, avoiding late frosts. Dark red foliage in spring, turning green in hot summers and translucent scarlet in fall.
'Fireglow'. Upright tree to 12 ft. Leaves emerge purple-red and hold color well into summer. Tolerates sun, heat, and humidity. Bright red fall color.
'Garnet'. Upright, cascading branches means a mature plant is about 69 ft. tall and 12 ft. wide, although that requires years. Slow growing with burgundy foliage all summer, followed by brilliant red foliage in fall.
'Germaine's Gyration'. Mounding shrub to 6 ft. Large green leaves tolerate full sun. Fall color is yellow and orange.
'Glowing Embers'. Very similar to the species, with small green leaves but tolerates sun, heat, and humidity all the way to the Coastal South. Yellow, orange, and purple fall color.
'Grandma Ghost'. Variegated small tree or shrub to 8 ft. with reticulated leaves (prominent green veins against a white background). Best in partial shade.
'Hogyoku'. Upright growth to 15 ft. Sturdy and easy to grow in most situations. Green leaves turn a deep yellow-orange pumpkin color in fall.
'Inaba-shidare'. Mounding, pendulous shrub to 5 ft. Very dark purple dissected leaves. Fall color is red.
'Kiyohime'. Small shrub to 3 ft. Small, nickel-size leaves emerge green with red edges turning green for summer. Bronze to orange fall color.
'Koto-no-ito'. Small tree to 5 ft. Very thin, straplike, green leaves. Fall color is yellow.
'Nuresagi'. Tall, slender, red-leafed variety to 20 ft. Tolerates full sun. Holds color well. Bright red fall color.
'Orange Dream'. Small tree to 15 ft. Small leaves emerge yellow-orange in spring. Fall color is golden yellow.
'Osakazuki'. Large leaves (to 5 in. wide) turn from a bright green in summer to crimson or deep purple in fall. Grows upright and wider with age, eventually making a 20-ft., round-topped tree. Sun, heat, and drought tolerant.
'Purple Ghost'. Variegated tree to 12 ft., with reticulated leaves (prominent black veins against a purple-red background). Fall color is red or orange.
'Red Dragon'. Ultimately growing 510 ft. tall and 58 ft. wide, this weeping maple begins with red foliage in spring. Summer brings mature burgundy leaves that hold their color better than most. Then in fall they begin to glow with a scarlet flush.
'Ryusen'. This weeping form depends on staking to attain its height. Stems grow straight down. Heat and sun tolerant. Coral-red fall color.
'Sango-Kaku' ('Senkaki'). CORAL-BARK MAPLE. Vigorous, upright growth to 20 ft. Yellow fall foliage. Twigs, branches are a striking coral-red in winter.
'Seiryu'. Upright, green spreading tree to 18 ft. with small green dissected leaves. Tolerates sun, heat, and humidity to the Lower South. In cooler areas fall color is orange or yellow. In hotter areas it is burgundy.
'Shaina'. This dwarf form grows only 34 ft. tall and wide, making it ideal for small gardens. Slow growing and maturing into a rounded shrub, the plant features leaves that are showy red in spring, burgundy in summer, and bright orange in fall.
'Shirazz'. Growing 1014 ft. tall and 710 ft. wide, this selection from New Zealand is showier than most flowers. New growth is pink, followed by mature leaves that appear to be a cream-edged green leaf, covered with a rosy pink veil.
'Shishi-gashira'. LION'S HEAD MAPLE. Small, upright tree to 10 ft. Small, crinkled leaves appear clustered tightly around stiff, twiggy branches. Fall color is orange.
'Skeeter's Broom'. Narrow, upright, small maple to 10 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide. Holds dark red color well. Fall color is bright red.
'Tamukeyama'. Leaves open deep crimson-red in spring and turn quickly to dark purple-red; color holds well through summer, even in high heat and humidity. Tolerates full sun. Scarlet fall color. Leaves less lacy than those of 'Crimson Queen', branches more cascading. Fast growing to 7 ft.
'Tsukasa Silhouette'. Growing 1820 ft. tall, but only 5 ft. wide, this unusual Japanese maple is a living tower in the garden, ideal for screening, accent, or narrow spaces. Bright green in spring, the foliage turns dark red in autumn for a grand finale.
'Viridis'. Small grower to 6 ft. high, 10 ft. wide, with drooping branches, green bark. Pale green, nely divided leaves turn gold in autumn.
'Waterfall'. Very similar to 'Viridis'. Branches cascade. Leaves deeply divided, fernlike, flowing, and elegant. Brilliant yellow and gold fall color. Takes full sun quite well.
A. platanoides. NORWAY MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. Native to Europe, western Asia. Broad-crowned, densely foliaged tree to 5060 ft. tall, from two-thirds as wide to equally as wide as high. Leaves five lobed, 35 in. wide, deep green above, paler beneath; turn yellow in fall. Showy clusters of small, greenish yellow flowers in early spring. Very adaptable, tolerating many soil and environmental conditions. Once a widely recommended street tree but now less popular because of voracious roots, self-sown seedlings, and aphid-caused honeydew drip and sooty mold. Here are some of the better selections (purple-leafed forms perform poorly in alkaline soils).
'Cleveland' and 'Cleveland II'. Shapely, compact, well-formed trees about 50 ft. tall, 40 ft. wide. Excellent golden yellow fall color. May be sold as 'chanticleer'.
'Columnare'. Slower growing, narrower form than the species (about 20 ft. wide).
'Crimson King'. Maroon-purple foliage from spring through fall. Slower growing than the species.
'Drummondii'. Leaves are edged with silvery white; unusual and striking. Prefers afternoon shade.
'Emerald Queen'. Oval-rounded shape, fast grower. Grows 50 ft. tall, 40 ft. wide. Dark green leaves turn bright yellow in fall.
'Faassen's Black'. Pyramidal in shape, with dark purple leaves. Grows 4050 ft. tall and wide.
'Green Lace'. Finely cut, dark-green leaves; moderate growth rate to 40 ft.
'Jade Glen'. Vigorous, straight-growing form with bright yellow fall color. Grows 4050 ft. tall and wide.
'Parkway'. A broader tree than 'Columnare' (about 25 ft. wide), with a dense canopy.
'Royal Red'. A good red- or purple-leafed form. Similar to selection 'Crimson King'.
'Summershade'. Fast-growing, upright, heat-resistant selection. Poor fall color.
A. rubrum. RED MAPLE, SWAMP MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native to low, wet areas in eastern North America. Fairly fast growth to 60 ft. or taller and 40 ft. or wider. Faster growing than A. platanoides or A. saccharum. Red twigs, branchlets, and buds; quite showy flowers in late winter. Bright red seeds. Leaves 24 in. long, with three to five lobes, shiny green above, pale beneath; brilliant scarlet, orange, and yellow fall color in frosty areas. Often among the first trees to color up in fall. Tolerates most soils, but suffers in dry soil. Selected forms include the following.
'Autumn Flame'. Rounded form, 60 ft., excellent early red fall color.
'Bowhall'. Narrow (15 ft. wide), 40 ft., cone shaped, with orange-red color in fall.
'Brandywine.' Seedless male clone. Hybrid of 'October Glory' and 'Autumn Flame'. Moderately columnar; grows about half as wide as tall. Bright red color holds for at least 2 weeks in fall.
'Columnare'. Broadly columnar; 70 ft. tall, 20 ft. wide. Orange-red fall color.
'Florida Flame'. Round and uniform; 4550 ft. tall and wide. Resistant to leaf spot.
'October Glory'. Round-headed tree; last to turn color in fall. Good scarlet fall color even in the Lower South. Reaches 5060 ft.
'Red Sunset'. Upright, vigorous, fast growing to 5060 ft. Early orange-red fall color.
'Schlesingeri'. Broad, fast growing to 6070 ft., with regular form; orange-red fall color. First red maple to color in fall.
'Shade King'. Very fast grower to 50 ft. tall, 40 ft. wide. Pale green foliage turns bright red in fall.
'Sun Valley'. Slight oval form reaching 40 ft. tall by 35. ft wide. Fall foliage glows coral to red.
A. saccharinum. SILVER MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native of eastern North America. Grows rapidly to 40100 ft. with equal spread. Open form, with semipendulous branches; casts fairly open shade. Silvery gray bark peels in long strips on old trees. Leaves 36 in. wide, five lobed, light green above, silvery beneath. Fall color is usually a poor yellow-green. Aggressive roots are hard on sidewalks, sewers.
You pay a penalty for the advantage of fast growth: Weak wood and narrow crotch angles make this tree break easily. Unusually susceptible to aphids and cottony scale. Suffers from chlorosis in alkaline soils. Many rate it the least desirable of maples, but nonetheless it is often planted for fast growth.
'Silver Queen'. More upright form than the species, seedless. Bright gold fall color.
A. saccharum. SUGAR MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native to eastern North America. The source of maple syrup in the Northeast, this tree is renowned for spectacular fall color. Moderate growth to 60 ft. or more, with stout branches and upright, oval to rounded canopy to about 40 ft. wide. Leaves 36 in. wide, with three to five lobes, green above, pale below. Brilliant autumn foliage ranges from yellow and orange to deep red and scarlet. Intolerant of road salt; best in acid, moist, well-drained soil. Not well suited to urban conditions.
Commonly available selections include:
'Autumn Splendor'. Grows 45 ft. tall and 40 ft. wide. Heat and drought tolerant.
'Caddo'. CADDO MAPLE. Not a single selection, but a distinct group of heat- and drought-tolerant sugar maples native to Oklahoma. To 50 ft. More tolerant of alkaline soils than eastern maples. Yellow and orange fall color. Good for the Southwest.
'Commemoration'. Heavy leaf texture; yellow, orange, and red fall color. Faster growing than the species; tolerates heat and drought.
'Flashfire'. Grows 45 ft. tall and 40 ft. wide. Early red fall color in spite of heat. Caddo seedling.
'Green Mountain'. Tolerant of heat and drought; autumn leaves are yellow to orange to reddish orange. To 70 ft. Fall color better in Upper South.
'Harvest Moon'. To 50 ft. tall and 35 ft. wide. Orange-red fall color, heat and drought resistant.
'Legacy'. Fast growing, drought and heat tolerant, multihued in fall; late to leaf out in spring. To 50 ft.
'Monumentale' ('Temple's Upright'). Narrow, erect form to 60 ft. tall, 15 ft. wide. Yellow-orange fall leaves.
'Seneca Chief'. Narrow form, orange to yellow fall color. To 20 ft. wide.
A. s. floridanum (A. barbatum). SOUTHERN SUGAR MAPLE, FLORIDA MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from Virginia south to Florida and west to Oklahoma and Texas. Grows to 2530 ft. tall and as wide. Usually turns the same rich yellow and red in autumn as A. saccharum, but it is smaller in stature and has smaller leaves, paler bark, and a more open habit. It turns color very late, often in December. It is also better adapted to the hot Coastal Plains of the South. Found in forest understory alongside streams.
A. s. grandidentatum. BIGTOOTH MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. This dense, mid-size tree takes full to partial sun, growing 3045 ft. tall and 2025 ft. wide, ideal for landscapes or as a street tree. Three- to five-lobed leaves with large, blunt teeth turn brilliant yellow, orange, or rose red in fall. In nature, this species grows in canyons and on stream banks; in gardens, it requires well-drained soil on the dry side. Good choice for the Southwest. Tolerates alkaline soil. The 'Lost Maple' of the Edwards Plateau in Texas. 'Highland Park' offers classic maple fall color.
A. s. leucoderme (A. leucoderme). CHALK MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS, CS; USDA 6-9. Native from North Carolina south to Florida and west to Texas and Oklahoma. Multitrunked tree to 30 ft. tall and almost as wide, with brilliant yellow, orange, and red fall color. Quite similar to A. barbatum, but grows faster; prefers drier, upland sites. Its leaves are green on the underside, while those of A. barbatum are gray-green beneath. Bark is also ashy gray, hence the common name.
A. s. nigrum (A. nigrum). BLACK MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native to eastern North America. Similar to A. saccharum. Light green leaves with drooping lobes turn yellow in late fall. 'Green column' can reach 65 ft. tall, 25 ft. wide.
A. shirasawanum 'Aureum' (A. japonicum 'Aureum'). SHIRASAWA MAPLE, GOLDEN FULLMOON MAPLE. Deciduous shrub or tree. Zones US, MS; USDA 6-7. Japanese native; grows to 20 ft. tall and wide. Leaves open pale gold in spring and remain pale chartreuse all summer. Partial shade.
A. tataricum ginnala. AMUR MAPLE. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native to Manchuria, northern China, Japan. Toothed leaves are three lobed, even on mature plants. Clusters of small, fragrant, yellowish flowers bloom in early spring; these are followed by handsome winged seeds in bright red. Striking red fall color. 'Flame', 1520 ft. high and wide, has especially fiery foliage in autumn. 'Bailey Compact', 10 ft. tall and 15 ft. wide with red fall color.
A. truncatum. PURPLEBLOW MAPLE. Deciduous tree. Zones US, MS, LS; USDA 6-8. Native to China. Grows fairly rapidly to 25 ft., with equal or slightly smaller spread. Like a small A. platanoides with more deeply lobed leaves to 4 in. wide. Leaves emerge purplish red, mature to green by summer, and turn yellow to orange toned in fall. Good lawn or patio tree. Tolerates most well-drained soils and urban conditions.