This guide fulfills the need for an easy resource beginners can use to recognize the trees they encounter.
By Mark Mikolas
A Beginner's Guide To Recognizing Trees of the Northeast (The Countryman Press, 2016) Writer and hiker Mark Mikolas's takes away the confusion and guesswork by restricting the geography covered to 13 states where similar types of trees can be found, reducing the number of trees focused on to the most common, selecting the key features needed to identify a tree, and avoiding find distinctions between related species.
"We had not gone far before I was startled by seeing what I thought was an Indian encampment, covered with a red flag, on the bank, and exclaimed, “Camp!” to my comrades. I was slow to discover that it was a red maple changed by the frost." — Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods
Red maple is called red because its twigs, buds, and flowers are all red, and its leaves turn a flaming red in the fall—in fact, its leaves are among the earliest in the fall to start turning. It is also the most wide- spread deciduous tree in the eastern U.S., able to grow in wet and dry conditions, poor and rich soils, and in bottom-lands and at elevation.
Where to look for Red Maple
According to the USDA Forest Service, 30 percent of all trees in the Northeast are red maples. They appear throughout the Northeast, being one of the most adaptable trees. They can be found almost anywhere—from swamps to poor dry soils, and every condition in between. They can also grow at a wide range of elevations, from sea level to about 3,000 feet.
Bull's-eyes in the Bark
Only three trees that are commonly encountered in the forests of the Northeast have opposite branching: red maple, sugar maple, and ash. This means that if you see at least one pair of opposite branches, you know it is either a maple or an ash. Because ash branches are so unlike maple branches, it is easy to tell which one you are looking at. Both red maple and sugar maple have opposite branching.
On the left is a red maple sapling showing opposite branching, on the right, a black birch showing alternate branching.
There is something red about red maple year round— red twigs, red buds, red flowers, and in the fall, red leaves. It is hard to see buds or twigs on a tall mature tree, so they are not much help in identifying it. On young trees or trees with new growth within reach, buds and twigs can be useful. Red maple leaves turn bright red in the fall, often before the leaves of other trees being to turn. Then, very early in the spring, it is one of the first trees to flower, long before it's leaves appear.
Red maple leaves turn red in the fall, and their flowers are red in the spring.
If you see a tree with a pattern in its bark that looks like a bull's-eye you can identify it as a red maple without a doubt. This unusual pattern in the bark is a trunk canker caused by a fungus. Even as a tree ages, the bull's-eye pattern persists.
The target-like patterns (formed by a trunk canker caused by fungus) appear only on red maples and are identifiers.
If you see opposite branching on a tree and it is growing in a swamp, lowland, or right next to water, then you know it is a red maple. Red maple is also known as swamp maple because it can thrive in wet areas, while sugar maple cannont tolerate these conditions.
Red maples do not mind getting their feet wet, while sugar maples do. Red maple leaves turn red before many other trees.
I always feel at home where the sugar maple grows... glorious in autumn, a fountain of coolness in the summer, sugar in its veins, gold in its foilage, warmth in its fibers, and health in it the year round. — John Burroughs, Under the Maples
Sugar maple is the second most common tree in the Northeast. Its average life span is 300 years, and it can live up to 500 years. This means that many large mature trees populate our region. Some areas of the Northeastern forest are primarily composed of sugar maples. With the trees in close proximity, it is easy to tap them for their sap. An area of many maple trees being tapped for sap is called a "sugarbush." The sap is then transported to the sugarhouse where it is boiled down to make maple syrup and other maple-flavored products. In March, a popular dessert at church suppers in New England is "sugar-on-snow," made by boiling sap and then pouring it on a bowl full of hard-packed snow.
Where to look for Sugar Maple
Sugar maple can be found throughout the Northeast. It has adapted to a variety of soil types, so it is not limited to specific conditions. It is also tolerant of shade, meaning it does not need direct sunlight to grow. Thus, it can start life even when over-shadowed by more mature trees. It is one of the dominant species in mixed hardwood forests, so generally if you find one tree, you will find many throughout the forest, unlike red maple, it does not tolerate wet roots, so it will not be found in swampy or boggy areas.
If you see at least one pair of opposite branches, it is either a maple or an ash.
Maple syrup is most commonly made from the sap of the sugar maple, so wherever you see sap buckets— or, more often these days, plastic tubing running through the woods— you are seeing a grove of maple trees, which is called a "sugarbush". The sap lines are under negative pressure, which causes the sap to be drawn from the trees and delivered to a sap house where it is collected and then boiled down into maple syrup.
A sugarbush with sap tubing under negative pressure.
Sap is gathered in the early spring when snow is generally still on the ground. In the old days, the sap was collected in buckets on the trees, and workmen would go around with a horse- or oxen- drawn sleigh with a big barrel on it to gather all the sap from the buckets. Needless to say, it was difficult to draw a sleigh through thick woods, so to make it easier to gather the sap, settlers planted sugar maples along the road. If you see trees planted in a row along a thoroughfare, old or new, look closely. Chances are good, especially in New England, that they are sugar maples.
Sugar maples were planted along roads to make it easier to gather and transport sap in the early spring, when snow is still on the ground.
It may seems self-evident that branches grow upward, but not all of them do. Some trees actually have branches that grow downward, and other trees have branches that grow in all directions. The branches of open-grown sugar maples, however, do all grow upward in a classic oval form. The major limbs and branches both grow vertically with slender tips and form the distinctive oval shape. You will occasionally see a maple tree growing by itself in the middle of a field. Most likely an early farmer either planted it or left it when the land was cleared to provide a place to eat lunch and rest in its shadow when working in the field.
That was a day of delight and wonder.
While lying the shade of the maple trees under—
He felt the soft breeze at its frolicksome play;
He smelled the sweet odor of newly mown hay.
— Thomas Dunn English, "Under the Trees"
Not all maples grow in spirals, but enough do that it is a secondary characteristic for identification. Some scientists speculate that this feature evolved to help the tree withstand high winds.
Sugar maples sometimes grow in a spiral pattern, unlike most other trees.
It is not easy to tell red maple from sugar maple. As Chuck Wosster writes in Northern Woodlandsmagazine, "telling red maple from sugar maple can vex even seasoned botanists on occasion." That said, there are a number of keys that help distinguish the two maples
Red maple—or swamp maple— can tolerate having wet roots, so if you know a given tree is a maple because of opposite branching, and if it is growing in or near water or a wet area, it is a red maple.
Red maple is also know as soft maple, while sugar maple is also called hard maple. The "hard" in "hard maple" is sometimes reflected in the appearance of the tree's bark. A tight, hard-looking bark can be found on some sugar maples but not on red maples.
As a general rule, if you try to peel the bark off a red maple, you will find it comes off easily, but sugar maple bark is rigid and does not come off, even if it looks like it is peeling.
Bulls-eyes sometimes appear in red maple bark but never in sugar maples.
As shown in these photographs, some sugar maples have especially tight, hard-looking bark. This type of bark is not found on mature red maples.
Red maple barks peels off easily (left) while sugar maple bark resists peeling, even when it looks like it will come off (right).
Bulls-eyes found only on red maple.
In the Introduction, I said that I would avoid using twigs and buds in identification because they are so hard to see or obtain when dealing with a mature tree. However, because it is sometimes difficult to distinguish betwen sugar and red maple, I have included them here. If nothing else, they can be used to identify seedlings— which might provide a clue to the mature trees around them.
Red maple has red twigs and buds (and red leaves in the fall and red flowers in the spring). The leaves of sugar maple, on the other hand, generally turn yellow or golden in the fall, and sugar maples have brown twigs and buds.
Red maple showing red buds and twigs (left); sugar maple showing brown buds and twigs (right).
In the forests of the Northeast, red maple is the most common of all deciduous trees. In fact, there are twice as many of them as the next most common, sugar maple. Thus, if you determine a tree is a maple and guess that it is a red maple, you will likely be right two out of three times.