Sugar maples are one of the most common and widespread trees in eastern North America, and they are one of the most abundant trees in the forested areas of Ohio. They are also widely planted as ornamentals in residential areas because of their tolerance to shade, spreading growth form, and brilliantly colored leaves in the fall.
Mature trees range from 70 to 90 feet in height and 2 to 3 feet in diameter.
Sugar maple leaves are opposite and are usually five-lobed (although some leaves may have only three or four lobes). They are moderately lobed in comparison to the less deeply lobed leaves of the black maple (Acer nigrum) which is also found in The Woods (Figure 1). The edges of the sugar maple leaves also do not droop compared to the drooping leaf edges of the black maple. Sugar maple leaves display a variety of colors in the fall including yellow, orange, and red.
Buds of a sugar maple tree are very small, pointed, and are made up of tight overlapping scales. These buds are dark brown in color (Figure 2). Twigs are light brown and glossy compared to the dull twigs of a Black Maple tree. The bark of a young sugar maple tree is dark grey in color, but as the tree gets older, it appears more dark brown. As the tree ages, it also develops rough vertical grooves and ridges. These long plates peel along the side edges and are a helpful characteristic in identifying a sugar mapletree (Figure 3).
The flowers of a sugar maple tree are small and occur in clusters with each flower at the end of a long dangling flower stalk (Figure 4). The drooping clusters are 1 to 2.5 inches long and contain eight to fourteen flowers. Green-yellow in color, these tiny flowers will appear in the late winter or early spring before the emergence of leaves. Male and female flowers can occur on the same tree. Sugar maple trees produce paired samaras (winged fruits) that hang downward in clusters throughout the summer and mature in autumn.
These familiar helicopter seeds serve as a source of food for birds and mammals (Figure 5). Animals commonly browse sugar maple trees and feed on the seeds, buds, twigs, and leaves. Songbirds, woodpeckers, and cavity nesters are frequent residents in sugar maple trees.
The sugar maple tree is important historically and economically because of its use in the production of maple syrup and timber. Hundreds of years ago, sugar maple trees were a valued source of sweetener to Native Americans and European settlers. The sugar maple is the most popular tree today that is used for commercial syrup production because of its high sugar content compared to other maple species. The ideal sugar maple tree for producing sap has a large crown that allows many leaves to be exposed to the sunlight. Its sap is mostly collected in the spring, and it is then concentrated by boiling. A mature sugar maple tree can produce 10-20 gallons of sap per tap. It takes 40-50 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup!
Sugar maples have been valued as hardwood timber trees because of their hard, strong wood. It has been commonly used to make furniture, flooring, panelling, woodenware, and even musical instruments. Bowling alleys and bowling pins are frequently manufactured from sugar maple trees.
Cornell Sugar Maple Research & Extension Program. (n.d.). Sugar Maple. Retrieved from Cornell University Website: http://maple.dnr.cornell.edu/kids/tree_sug.htm
ODNR. (2016). Sugar Maple. Retrieved from the ODNR Division of Forestry Web site: http://forestry.ohiodnr.gov/sugarmaple
USDA. (2006, May). Plant Guide: Sugar Maple. Retrieved from The U.S. Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources Conservation Service Web site: https://plants.usda.gov/plantguide/pdf/pg_acsa3.pdf