The sugar maple, Acer saccharum, is a large, hardwood, deciduous tree in the Sapindaceae (soapberry) family. Typically, sugar maples are moderately fast growers, reaching 60 to 80 feet tall, possibly exceeding 100 feet. The National Champion sugar maple grows in Charlemont, Massachusetts. It stands 115 feet tall with a trunk diameter of over 6 feet and a circumference of over 19 feet at breast height! Mature sugar maples tend to have a broad, round canopy with low, sweeping branches if open-grown. If grown in the forest, of course, they are much more narrow in habit.
The leaves are a typical shape for a maple: palmate with 5 lobes. The upper lobes are much deeper than the lower ones. Its leaf is famously recognizable, as it is on the Canadian flag. Sugar maples sport some of the most remarkable fall colors, ranging from red to scarlet to sienna to orange to yellow and every shade in between. Truly spectacular! Inconspicuous, green flowers appear in early spring and rely on wind for pollination. The seed, within winged samaras, ripens and falls in the autumn.
Native range and habitat
The sugar maple grows in rich, upland woods, particularly on limestone soils from Nova Scotia to Minnesota and extreme eastern South Dakota, south to Missouri and Virginia and the mountains of Northern Georgia. This tree is common in the mixed hardwood forests of Pennsylvania, including right here in Lehigh County. It is a common species in the Appalachian mountains, especially on north-facing slopes, but tends not to grow in very acidic soils, though moderate acidity is acceptable. It will also grow on slightly alkaline soils.
The larvae of the imperial moth feed on the foliage of sugar maples. The imperial moth is one of Pennsylvania’s largest moth species. Occasional damage to the bark leads the tree to drip excessive sap, which is eaten by a variety of insects including some adult butterflies such as the red admiral and comma. Many other insects eat the sap such as syrphid flies, blow flies, muscid flies, skipper flies, and the [aptly named] sap-eating fly.
The yellow-bellied sapsucker, a species of woodpecker, also commonly feeds on the sap of the sugar maple by pecking numerous tiny holes in its bark. Many mammals, such as white-footed mice, voles, and squirrels feed on maple seeds. Deer and elk may browse saplings.
Mature sugar maples often have cavities, which are useful for cavity nesting birds and mammals. These cavities, as well as exfoliating bark provides shelter to multiple species of bats as well!
As its name implies, the sugar maple is the primary source of sap for the production of sweet, delicious maple syrup! Vermont is the nation’s top producer, churning out a whopping 2.55 million gallons in 2022! That is a huge increase over the last two decades, because in 2002, it was under 500,000 gallons.
It takes at least 40 years for a maple to be ready to begin tapping for sap. And even then, producers will be limited on how many taps they can put on the tree. Trees older than 100 years are tapped each year, often with 2 or 3 taps on them. And, perhaps most shocking, is that it takes 40 gallons of raw sap to make 1 gallon of maple syrup. Yes that is correct, you need to collect 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of the finished product. Many trees do not produce more than 20 gallons of sap per year, and so it often takes at least 2 trees to get even 1 gallon of syrup. Now you know why the real maple syrup is quite expensive!
Sugar maples are also valuable timber trees. The lumber is as a heavy as that of red oak, and very strong. Because of its toughness and durability, sugar maple is often used for bowling-lane surfaces, bowling pins, school desks, tool handles, ladder rungs, and other materials that “take a beating”. Sugar maple is also found in a lot of antique, “early American” furniture. Other uses include cabinets, countertops, cutting boards, and general flooring. Specialty pieces of wood, particularly burls and fiddleback wood, have been used for crafts such as bowls, gun stocks, and violins.
The sugar maple is sometimes confused with the nonnative, invasive Norway maple, Acer platanoides. That said, it makes a great native alternative to the invasive species!
The black maple, Acer nigrum, is a debated species with a range that overlaps much of that of the sugar maple. Many authors consider it a subspecies of the sugar maple (Acer saccharum ssp. nigrum), while others consider it its own species. The foliage of the black maple differs as it is typically larger, leathery, and always appears to be somewhat drooping.
Growing sugar maples is easy in the right conditions! This species does well in average to moist, well-drained, fertile soils. pH preference range 5.5 to 7.3 (moderately acidic to slightly alkaline). It will likely not perform well in compacted soils or soils that prone to becoming overly dry for extended periods of time. While growing in full sun is the preferred placement, especially to achieve a beautifully shaped mature tree, the sugar maple can be planted in the shaded understory of other trees. Because of their grand size, you should give them plenty of space, at least 20 feet away from any structure.
Just remember…40 years to start tapping for sap. So, plant soon!