Winter Trees: Sugar Maple

Sugar maple buds (photo by Kate St. John)

This week's tree is easy to identify by its twig.

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a common tree in northeastern North America, prized for its wood, its brilliant fall foliage and its sap for maple syrup in the spring.

Like the white ash, the sugar maple is one of the few trees with opposite leaf buds.  If you look closely you'll see that each pair of buds is rotated about 180 degrees from the previous set.  This keeps the tree in balance as the buds eventually become branches.

Sugar maple twigs are brown and slender and the leaf buds are brown and very pointy.  Test the tip of a bud with your finger and you'll find it's almost sharp!

A good hint for remembering the tree is to realize that the buds resemble upside down ice cream sugar cones.  "Sugar cones" on sugar maples.

Many trees are easy to identify by their bark but the sugar maple is not one of them.  The bark on young trees is stone-gray and smooth as shown below...


...but the bark on mature trees becomes furrowed with large flat scales that seem to vertically peel off the tree.  This makes for a lot of variation and can be quite confusing.  When I finally learned to identify sugar maple bark I called it "the bark that looks like nothing else."  Not easy to explain.

If I'm stumped by the bark on a tall tree I always have one more trick up my sleeve.  I use my binoculars to examine the twigs.

Are the buds opposite, brown and pointed like sugar cones?  Sugar maple!

(photos by Kate St. John)

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