What is the Best Maple Tree?

Posted by

"Which maple should I plant?" is a question I routinely encounter. My response, "None!"

Maples (Acer spp.) aren't bad trees. In fact, they are great trees. Drive down most streets and you will see a maple in everyone's yard. Speaking with landscapers about their inventory and what they sell more than any other species are maples. We love maple trees.

The characteristics of red maple, sugar maple or any of the various hybrids exemplify good fall color, decent growth rate, interesting bark, and ease of propagation. Their performance puts maple trees in the league of historically top-rated trees like American elm, green and white ash, and American chestnut.

My use of the term 'historically' has two connotations. The first indicates our historic use of the three aforementioned tree species in the United States. The second connotation refers to the fact the American chestnut, elm, and soon-to-follow ash are history. Like the maple that follows in their trend, ash, chestnut, and elm were all heavily planted. One-by-one, each tree species succumbed to a non-native, invasive pest. Today, our communities are grappling with the effects of emerald ash borer and the vast emptiness left in our urban canopies. What's being planted in the wake of millions of lost ash trees? You guessed it – maples.

Currently, there is a pest called the Asian long-horned beetle, that has the potential to completely wipe out North America's maple tree population. Asian long-horned beetle has popped up in the United States already, and fortunately our methods to controlling this pest have been successful. But things change, pests adapt, and new threats emerge.

What can we do to prevent repeating our mistakes of monoculture urban forests? Don't plant them. With the loss of our ash trees, American cities have a great opportunity to plant a diversity of trees. If any of your neighbors have a maple tree, plant something else. Go even farther and take a walk around your neighborhood and identify what tree species may be lacking and seek those out.

The obvious follow-up question to my response of "Don't plant maples" is, "Well, what are your favorite trees?" Before I give you my list of trees, you need to know, this is a tricky question to ask of a horticulture educator. It's like asking me why my dog is my favorite dog. He chews on my kid's toys, ruined my front door, destroyed our windows, and steals my children's food, but I still love him and wouldn't trade him in…most days. Because for all those negatives, his good qualities still outshine the stuffed animal innards scattered across the living room floor from this morning.

Here goes. My top ten list of trees:

  1. White oak, Quercus alba
  2. Bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa
  3. Black gum, Nyssa sylvatica
  4. Tulip poplar, Liriodendron tulipifera
  5. Sweetgum, Liquidambar styraciflua (Yes, sweetgum haters you read that correctly. See my above paragraph about my dog.)
  6. Bald cypress, Taxodium distichum
  7. Kentucky coffeetree, Gymnocladus dioicus
  8. American beech, Fagus grandiflora
  9. American sycamore, Platanus occidentalis
  10. Hackberry, Celtis occidentalis

It is not my aim to make readers anti-maple, but instead pro-diversity for our urban canopies.

Doing a neighborhood tree survey and need help identifying a tree? Contact your local Extension office for resources in tree identification.