How to tell if your tree is a Maple

Riveredge School students using photographs to practice tree identification at Riveredge Nature Center.

Many types of trees can be tapped for sap, but only Sugar Maples (Acer saccharum) are renowned for having the highest sugar content. Although 2% sugar doesn’t seem like much, tapping from a sugar maple saves you a little bit of work and is a great starter tree before experimenting with other syrup varieties.

Tasting Sugar Maple sap at Riveredge Nature Center.

But how do you know if you have a Sugar Maple on your property?

Even in winter, there are plenty of signs to look for:

A snapshot of Mr. Ritz using the Riveredge Maple App. Click for a larger view of the leaves.

Bark: Medium grayish in color that will darken as they age. Bark is separated into tight vertical plates or scales.

Branching: All maples have opposite branching, which means they grow out in pairs that mirror each other. Other trees (dogwood, ash) have this branching type too, so look for additional clues!

Buds: Just like the branches, new buds come out opposite of one another too. They are sharp, slender and brown.

Signs from last year:

Leaves – Resemble the shape of a hand with five main lobes that spread from a central point. Leaf edges are smooth and tips almost look like they’re “dripping.” Leaves turn various shades of burnt orange, yellow, and red in autumn.

Fruit – Paired seeds called samaras (or helicopters) spin down in late summer and autumn.

Sweet goodness dripping from a Sugar Maple at Riveredge Nature Center.

Fun Maple Facts

Maple trees existed when dinosaurs roamed the Earth – 100 million years ago.

In optimum conditions maples can survive for 300 years.

There are 128 varieties of maples. Nearly half of all maple species have an uncertain future due to habitat loss.

Maples sound great: they’re used in a variety of string and woodwind instruments.

Maples are a vital early spring pollen resource for bees.

When you rake those Maple Samaras (the helicopters) don’t just throw them away! They’re packed with protein and carbohydrates – roast them, saute them, boil them – enjoy! Trees other than maples can be tapped such as Black Walnut, Yellow Birch, Paper Birch, Silver Maple, Red Maple, Box Elder, Black Maple, Norway Maple (non-native; not recommended for planting). However, not every tree is safe to tap. Confirm definitively that your tree is safe to tap before ingesting any sap or syrup.

If you don’t have a Maple tree or other tap-able option – volunteer to collect sap with us at Riveredge!

This piece was written by Kacey Tait, the Riveredge Inquiry-Based Curriculum and Instruction Manager.