Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum): History, Cultivars, Growth Rate, Lifespan & More

Acer is a genus of trees and shrubs commonly known as maples. The genus is placed in the soapberry family, Sapindaceae, along with lychee and horse chestnut. There are approximately 132 species, most of which are native to Asia, with a number also appearing in Europe, northern Africa, and North America. 

Acer saccharum, the sugar maple, is a species of maples. It is native to the hardwood forests of eastern Canada and eastern United States. Its leaf is the national emblem of Canada.

The eastern United States from northern Maine south to Tennessee and from eastern New England west to Minnesota and southern Missouri is home to most sugar maples. Others thrives in low, wooded bottomlands from Virginia south to Florida and west to Texas, in plant hardiness zones 6 through 9.

Sugar maple is best known for being the primary source of maple syrup and for its brightly colored fall foliage. Indigenous peoples, such as the Anishinaabeg, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wabanaki Confederacy, discovered the process of tapping maple trees to collect the sap. They would make small incisions in the tree trunks and collect the sap in birch bark containers. The sap was then boiled down to produce syrup, and further concentrated to make sugar. Today, Canada and the northeastern United States are major producers of maple syrup.

Sugar maple tree can grow to a height of 40 meters (130 feet) and has a dense crown of leaves, which turn various shades of gold to bright red in autumn. The bark of a sugar maple is light gray to brown and is mostly smooth when the tree is young, becoming more rough and ridged as it ages.

Sugar maples have a tendency to color unevenly in fall. In some trees, all colors above can be seen at the same time. They also share a tendency with red maples for certain parts of a mature tree to change color weeks ahead of or behind the remainder of the tree. The leaf buds are pointy and brown-colored. The recent year’s growth twigs are green, and turn dark brown.

It also goes by the name “rock maple,” “sugar tree,” “sweet maple,” or, particularly in reference to the wood, “hard maple,” “birds-eye maple,” or “curly maple,” the last two being specially figured lumber. The sugar maple is a long-lived tree, with individuals often reaching ages of 300 to 400 years.

Acer saccharum is usually confused with the Norway maple (Acer platanoides), which is not native to North America. However, the two species can be distinguished by several characteristics, including the shape of their leaves, the color of their sap, and the texture of their bark.

The sugar maple is most easily identified by clear sap in the leaf petiole (the Norway maple has white sap), brown, sharp-tipped buds (the Norway maple has blunt, green or reddish-purple buds), and shaggy bark on older trees (the Norway maple bark has small grooves). Also, the leaf lobes of the sugar maple have a more triangular shape, when to the squarish lobes of the Norway maple.

Sugar maples grow across U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 8. In their native range, they face average minimum and maximum temperatures of minus 40 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit. They receive anywhere from 20 to 50 inches of rainfall and 1 inch to 12 1/2 feet of snow each year. Their growing season of less than three to nearly 10 months begins between the third week of March and the second week of June, with average first frost dates falling between September 1 and November 10.

Other Characteristics of Sugar Maples

  • Sugar maple belongs to the Aceraceae family.
  • The bark is gray and smooth when young, becoming furrowed and dark gray with age.
  • Commonly found in mixed hardwood forests, often growing alongside species such as American beech, yellow birch, and eastern hemlock.
  • It prefers well-drained, moist soils and can tolerate a range of soil types, from acidic to alkaline.
  • The leaves are palmately lobed with 5 lobes. They are 3 to 6 inches wide and have serrated margins.
  • Inconspicuous yellow-green flowers appear in clusters in early spring.
  • The fruit consists of paired winged seeds called samaras, which are dispersed by wind.
  • Commonly planted as an ornamental tree in parks and residential areas for its beautiful foliage and shade-providing canopy.

Disadvantages of Growing Sugar Maples

  • Commonly susceptible to certain pests and diseases, such as the sugar maple borer and fungal diseases like tar spot and anthracnose.
  • Their shallow roots suffer in compacted, marshy, thin or dry, sandy soils.
  • They are highly salt sensitive. This eliminates them from consideration for coastal sites.
  • They are intolerant of air pollution and thus not very good for growing as street trees.
  • While they can grow to impressive heights, sugar maples have a moderate growth rate, gaining about 1 to 2 feet in height per year.
  • They perform best in loose, well-draining moist soils with pH ranging from 5.5 to 7.3. 
  • The root system is generally shallow and fibrous, the roots don’t grow deep into the ground but spread out close to the surface.
  • These maples can suffer from nutrient deficiencies, which can lead to problems like leaf discoloration and reduced fruit and flower production.
  • In southern states, the trees occur only at elevations between 3,000 and 5,500 feet. 
  • The wood can be used in furniture making, flooring, cabinetry, and musical instruments such as violins and guitars.

Cause of Fall Color Change

Sugar maples leaves get their fall coloring from anthocyanins they manufacture late in the growing season. As days shorten and temperatures cool, foliage-stored nutrients and energy move to the trees’ roots. Green chlorophyll diminishes, and anthocyanins step in to prevent foliar sun damage during the transfer. This switch is most obvious during the burgundy stage, when anthocyanins and chlorophyll mix. Leaves become bright red when the chlorophyll fades completely.

Cultivars of Sugar Maple

ApolloColumnar growth habit
ArrowheadPyramidal crown
Astis (Steeple)Heat-tolerant, well-suited for southeastern USA, oval crown
CaddoNaturally occurring southern ecotype from Southwestern Oklahoma, drought and heat tolerant, suitable for the Great Plains region
ColumnareVery narrow growth habit
Fall FiestaTough-leaved, colorful foliage, above-average hardiness
GoldspireColumnar with yellow-orange fall color
Green MountainDurable foliage resists heat and drought, oval crown, above-average hardiness
InfernoPossibly the hardiest cultivar, with more red fall color than ‘Lord Selkirk’ or ‘Unity’
LegacyTough, vigorous, and popular
Lord SelkirkVery hardy, more upright growth habit compared to other northern cultivars
MonumentaleColumnar growth habit
September FlareVery hardy, exhibits early orange-red fall color
Sweet ShadowLacy foliage
Temple’s UprightNarrow growth habit similar to ‘Columnare’
UnityVery hardy, slow steady growth, originates from Manitoba

Common Diseases of Sugar Maple

  • Anthracnose: This fungal disease can cause brown spots or blotches on the leaves of a sugar maple tree, as well as twig and branch dieback. It is most commonly caused by environmental conditions such as wet, humid weather.
  • Verticillium Wilt: This disease affects the vascular system of the tree, leading to wilting and eventual death of branches. It is caused by a soil-borne fungus.
  • Canker: Cankers are areas of dead bark that can lead to branch dieback. They are caused by a variety of fungal or bacterial pathogens.
  • Tar Spot: This is a fungal disease that causes black spots and discoloration on leaves. It is mostly a cosmetic issue and does not significantly harm the tree.
  • Powdery Mildew: This is a fungal disease that appears as a white or gray powdery growth on the surface of leaves. It can cause leaves to twist, curl, or become distorted.
  • Root Rot: This is a fungal disease that affects the roots of the tree, leading to poor growth, leaf discoloration, and branch dieback. It is most common in soils that are poorly drained or constantly wet.

Sugar maples (Bark, Leaf, Flower, Root system) – Identification Guide

Leaf of Sugar Maples

Bark of Sugar Maples

Flowers of Sugar Maples

The Root System of Sugar Maples