posted November 24th, 2009; last edited November 25th, 2009 –– David Sibley

Variation in fall color: Red Maple

Watching the changing colors of fall leaves is always interesting, and even more so when you recognize the species of trees and begin to understand some of the finer points of variation in color. In these four photographs of Red Maple, all taken within a few days in Massachusetts and New Hampshire, I’ll describe a little of that variation.

Red Maple is one of the most common trees in northeastern North America, and one of the most colorful in autumn. They can be bright pale yellow, or orange, or brilliant scarlet, or maroon. Single individual trees generally have all of their leaves a similar color, but different trees can be strikingly different. Often the extremes of variation can be seen on adjacent trees, and a single pure stand of Red Maples presents a diverse palette of color.

A wild stand of Red Maple, showing the diversity of color typical of this species. October 2009, New Hampshire. Photo copyright David Sibley.

A wild stand of Red Maple, showing the diversity of fall color typical of this species. 21 October 2009, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Photo copyright David Sibley.

The timing of leaf fall also varies in Red Maple, with some trees losing leaves in September, while other nearby trees retain leaves to late October, a span of at least four weeks. At least some of this variation seems to be tied to growing conditions, with trees growing in wetter areas losing their leaves earlier than those in uplands. Compare the photo below – of Red Maples growing in low-lying swampy soil around a pond – with the photo above taken just two days apart. In mid-October in Massachusetts it’s common to see a swamp filled with leafless Red Maples, while trees around the margins still have brilliant fall colors.

Red Maples in wet soil, 23 Oct 2009, Concord MA. Photo copyright David Sibley.

Red Maples in wet soil, 23 October 2009, Concord MA. Photo copyright David Sibley.

Another major source of variation in fall color in Red Maple is the prevalence of cultivated varieties. Virtually all Red Maples planted in suburbia are commercially available cultivars, often selected for their bright and/or persistent fall color. Whole streets or parking lots may be lined with genetically identical trees. In contrast to wild trees, these clones show almost no variation in color of autumn leaves.

A line of planted Red Maple cultivars in Concord, MA, 9 November 2009. Photo copyright David Sibley.

A line of planted Red Maple cultivars in Concord, MA, 9 November 2009. Photo copyright David Sibley.

There are plenty of different cultivars available, though, so you will still see lots of variation in the leaves of cultivated Red Maples as you travel along different streets. Below is a photo showing two different Red Maples. The tree in the foreground still has a lot of green in its leaves, weeks later than any of the wild local trees, while the tree in the background has exceptionally bright leaves, brighter than most wild trees.

Cultivated Red Maples in Concord, MA, 23 October 2009. Photo copyright David Sibley.

Cultivated Red Maples in Concord, MA, 23 October 2009. Photo copyright David Sibley.

8 comments to Variation in fall color: Red Maple

  • Ron Pittaway

    Sugar Maples have both male and female flowers on the same tree whereas Red Maple trees are either male or female. Male Red Maples turn red in fall and female Red Maples turn yellow to orange.

    Ron Pittaway
    Minden, Ontario

  • Hi Ron, Thanks for the comment – fascinating! I have noticed a similar range of red to yellow colors in flowers of differnet Red Maple trees in the spring, but I didn’t find a strong correlation between color and gender. I never considered the possibility that male and female trees might have different fall colors! I’ll have to watch for this next fall.
    – David Sibley

  • Jose Campos

    Hi David

    It´s a pleasure to open your book in my home country now (Spain) and remind the great variety of nice trees in East Coast. I had your previous books on birds of North America (my favourites books when I stayed for 2 years in Virginia) and now this one about trees is very welcome. Good job!

    Best regards from Spain

    Jose

  • Christie Riehl

    It’s my understanding that both Red and Sugar Maples can be either monoecious or dioecious: while some individuals bear only male or only female flowers, some individuals have flowers that are perfect (both male and female reproductive structures). However, the majority of Red Maples do seem to have either male or female flowers, so Ron’s point about leaf color change may well hold true.

    Greatly enjoying the beautiful new guide,

    Christie Riehl
    Princeton, NJ

  • Marty Trewhitt

    A couple years ago, we planted a red maple tree labeled “Autumn Blaze”. I had done quite a bit of research because I wanted a certain color in the fall. We have had color two falls now and the color is reddish/brown, slightly darker than I hoped it would be. I was hoping for the brilliant deep orange/yellow hue that I’ve seen around town.

    I picked a leaf from a nearby tree like I wanted and one from our tree and they are very similar but ours seems a little darker and it also has more dark flecks that the other leaf has.

    Can anyone tell me how to exactly identify the tree that is nearby?

    • Marty,
      That’s a good question, but cultivars are outside my area of expertise. I’d recommend posting the question to a gardening site like Dave’s Garden (no relation to me) or similar.
      Good luck and happy tree-watching,
      David

  • I remember learning in school that the spring flower color of a maple is a very good indication of what the fall leaf color will be. For instance, yellow flowers indicate yellow leaves, red flowers – red leaves, etc., etc. Has anyone else heard of this or noticed it?

  • Hi David, any follow up to the observation about male and female Red Maple leaves turning certain colours in the fall?
    I read a Harvard study that named the species as ‘polygamomonoecious’ meaning that sometimes an individual tree will be inconsistent in gender, producing mostly male flowers but some years producing female flowers which then generally fail to develop into fruit. Any thoughts/notes you can add to this? Thanks!

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