Among my favorite dishes for breakfast is a stack of hot, buttered pancakes drowning in maple syrup. Although we can’t grow the sugar maples that produce that delicious syrup here in Louisiana, a wonderful variety of maples can be used as shade trees and ornamentals in our landscapes. Now through February is a great time to plant them.
Selection is important
Some maples you should generally avoid are the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) and box elder (Acer negundo). The silver maple is sometime recommended and planted when a fast-growing shade tree is desired. It does better in north Louisiana than south Louisiana, but it tends to be short-lived; the wood is brittle and prone to breakage, and the tree is susceptible to squirrel damage and a variety of fungal wood rots. Box elder has unique compound leaves and grows wild in swamps. But it ages poorly and does not produce a quality shade tree; the wood is brittle, and it self-seeds prolifically.
Red maples (Acer rubrum) are native across the eastern United States. The Drummond or swamp red maple, Acer rubrum var. drummondii, is native to our state. This maple is particularly well-adapted to poor drainage. The leaves are silvery on the back, and the females produce an unusually large and ornamental winged fruit ranging in color from burgundy to rusty red hanging from the bare branches in January and February.
Swamp red maples are readily available at area nurseries and garden centers. And despite their swampy native habitat, they thrive in well-drained, average landscape conditions. They make attractive, fast-growing, medium-sized shade trees reaching about 40 to 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide. If you want a female that produces the attractive fruit, purchase a tree in late January or February with fruit on it to be sure. The tree must be old enough to flower and fruit, so you will need to look at the larger sizes available.
The swamp red maple doesn’t come in many varieties. Red maples often produce excellent fall color, even in the Deep South. Florida Flame was selected in Florida to reliably produce fall color. I’m growing this one, and the color is deep red. Autumn Flame, Autumn Fantasy and October Glory are additional selections chosen for outstanding fall color. They will likely be most reliable in north Louisiana.
Maples you probably don’t know
The southern sugar maple (Acer barbatum) closely resembles the sugar maple, but it is native to and does well in the Deep South. It is a smaller species growing to about 25 to 30 feet tall and has somewhat smaller leaves. It is well adapted to the low, wet coastal plains of the South and is often found in the forest understory along streams. I have been impressed with its consistent buttery yellow to burgundy fall color.
The trident maple (Acer buergerianum) produces small leaves with three large, pointed lobes (trident means “three teeth”). It is native to China and Japan. A nice tree for smaller spaces at about 20 to 25 feet tall when mature, it is about the size of a standard crape myrtle. It offers nice yellow or red fall color. On older trees, the bark flakes and peels attractively and is an additional feature. Provide this tree with good drainage.
I should mention one more maple for Louisiana. Native to Japan and Korea, the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) is distinctively different form all the maples included here.
The standard species has green leaves and grows to be about 15 to 20 feet or more tall. Many varieties, however, are much smaller-growing. Some have colorful leaves – primarily shades of burgundy or chartreuse or variegated, and some have leaves like finely divided lace. Their small stature and sculptural beauty make them wonderful additions to patio and courtyard areas or large decorative containers.
Japanese maples need some shade during the day, particularly in the afternoon, making an eastern exposure ideal. They must have excellent drainage. If the roots stay too wet during the intense heat of mid- to late summer, root rot may kill the tree.
Bloodgood is one of the few Japanese maple varieties that have been fairly widely planted. It has a history of doing well in the state. It produces the typical five- to seven-pointed star-shaped leaves of Japanese maples; they emerge burgundy in spring and fade to a bronze green over the summer. The coral bark Japanese maple called Sango-kaku has attractive bright green leaves that turn yellow in fall and twigs that are tinted a coral color.
Dan Gill is a horticulturist with the LSU AgCenter. He can be reached at DGill@agcenter.lsu.edu