By Nancy Buley, Director of Communications, J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Photographs courtesy of J. Frank Schmidt & Son Co.
Count on sugar maples to brighten the autumn landscape as their summer-green leaves turn with the season to bold tones of orange, red-orange and yellow. Mention sugar maples, and people typically conjure up scenes of New England forests ablaze with fall color.
Fortunately, this native of Eastern North America and its closely related subspecies perform well in many landscape settings far beyond their native range. Collectively, they are quite versatile and can thrive if well-chosen and provided with reasonably well-drained soils and adequate moisture. They’re generally long-lived, have storm-resistant structures, and are more deeply rooted than some of the other maple species.
While the classic, broad-spreading New England sugar maples grow too large for typical residential properties, various cultivars have been developed that are a better fit for smaller-scale landscapes. Look to columnar and compact selections for space-challenged landscapes. In this article, smaller trees are described first, with height and spread estimates provided for each. If you have the space, go big and you’ll be rewarded by cool shade and beautiful fall color that will last for generations.
Apollo® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘Barrett Cole’) is likely the most slender and compact of the sugar maples. A columnar, rocket-like shape inspired the name and makes it a good fit for small urban gardens or street tree settings where there’s no room for a broad-spreading tree. Large, dark green leaves form a dense canopy in summer and turn yellow orange to orange red. (Zone 4, 30’ x 10’)
Big Tooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum) is also known as Canyon Maple. This western cousin of the classic Eastern sugar maple is at home in the canyons of the Rocky Mountains, from Idaho and western Montana to New Mexico and West Texas. (Fly over the mountain range in autumn and you’ll see patches of bright red-orange maples interspersed with the golden glow of Quaking Aspen.) This rounded, small tree and several selections and hybrids derived from the species are excellent choices for smaller scale gardens and planting sites. (Zone 4, 20’ x 20’)
Rocky Mountain Glow® Maple (Acer grandidentatum ‘Schmidt’) is a selection of Big Tooth Maple that’s a good fit for residential gardens and for street tree use where narrow planting strips require a smaller stature tree. Like the species, it is heat and drought tolerant. Dark green summer foliage turns yellow to orange red in autumn. (Zone 4, 25’ x 15’)
Mesa Glow® Maple (Acer grandidentatum ‘JFS-NuMex3’ PP 27930) is a new introduction that will be hard to find for a few years as growers ramp up production, but worth waiting for. Developed at New Mexico State University, it’s the best of thousands of seedlings grown from Bigtooth Maple seed collected in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and other nearby states. Drought tolerance, cold hardiness and adaptability make this upright selection of the Rocky Mountain native a top choice for the intermountain West. Glossy dark green leaves turn orange red to red in autumn. (Zone 4, 28’ x 18’)
Highland Park® Maple (Acer grandidentatum x saccharum ‘Hipzam’) is an East meets West hybrid of eastern sugar maple and western Bigtooth maple. Intermediate in size, it is more pyramidal and upright than typical bigtooth maple, yet smaller and more heat resistant than sugar maple. Its thick, dark green leaves are tatter resistant and turn dependably bright red in autumn. (Zone 4, 35’ x 22’)
Known collectively as Caddo Maples, several fine landscape cultivars are derived from an isolated population of sugar maples located in Caddo County of western Oklahoma. Autumn Splendor and John Pair Maples were selected by Dr. John Pair of Kansas State University and have become popular and widely planted trees. Flashfire® and Powder Keg® Maples are newer selections from this unusual seed source. Both boast brighter fall color and improved form, heat and drought resistance and perform well in mildly alkaline soils.
Flashfire® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘JFS-Caddo2’ PP 23361) sports dark green, heat resistant leaves that cast cool summer shade before turning the brightest red color of any sugar maple adapted to Southern growing conditions. Vigorous growth, open branch angles and improved mildew resistance recommend it as the top performer of cultivars originating from the Caddo seed source. (Zone 4, 45’ x 40’)
Powder Keg® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘Whit XLIX’ PP 23957) offers spectacular fall color, stout branching and upright form. Its leathery dark green leaves are heat and drought tolerant and resist leaf tatter. The best of hundreds of seedlings grown from seed of an outstanding tree in Stillwater, it thrives on the Oklahoma prairie and is proving to be a top performer in varied landscape settings across the continent. (Zone 5, 50’ x 40’)
Oregon Trail® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘Hiawatha 1’) is a prairie-tough, drought and heat tolerant sugar maple and a Kansas native. It hails from Hiawatha, Kansas, one of many towns that sprang up along the Oregon Trail. Over the years, the parent tree of what would become known as Oregon Trail® Maple (pictured) grew to become one of most beautiful of the hundreds of sugar maples growing in what is known as “The City of Beautiful Maples.” Strong, storm resistant branch structure, heat and tatter-resistant foliage, and excellent fall color recommend it for prairie landscapes and beyond. (Zone 5, 45’ x 40’)
Autumn Fest® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘JFS-KW8’ PP 22034) Strong upright growth and reliably bright, early fall color make this a standout in landscapes and streetscapes. Young trees growing at our nursery, where the tree was selected and developed, are pictured. Vigorous and upright in growth habit, its form is narrower than is typical of sugar maples. Dark green foliage turns orange red to red in autumn. (Zone 4, 50’ x 35’)
Fall Fiesta® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘Bailsta’ PP 1119) sports fall color that can be downright breathtaking, with brighter reds and oranges than is typical of the species. Developed and trialed in Minnesota by Bailey Nurseries, this cold hardy and colorful cultivar is a time-tested shade tree that delivers glossy deep green, tatter-resistant summer foliage as well as bright fall color. (Zone 4, 50’ x 40’)
Tree planters in Northern and Southern regions of the U.S. where sugar maples typically fail to thrive can also enjoy the beauty of sugar maples if regionally appropriate cultivars are chosen.
Northern Flare® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘Sisseton’) is a great choice for cold climates where few trees with bright fall color can survive. Discovered in the northeast corner of South Dakota, its dark green leaves are thicker and more leathery than is typical of sugar maples, making this tough and colorful tree resistant to leaf tatter and damage from drought and heat. Fall color is orange to orange red. (Zone 3b, 50’x 40’)
Southern gardeners who are sweet on sugar maples should check out Florida or Southern Sugar Maple. Formerly known as Acer barbatum, Acer saccharum subsp. floridanum evolved in the Southeast and is the best option for Zone 8 and above. Discovered in Georgia, Harvest Moon® Maple (Acer saccharum ‘Sandersville’ PP 19807) is a hybrid selection that offers bright orange red fall color.
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