It may be strange to say, but the silver maple is kind of the underdog of the maple family. Not as beautifully colored as the Japanese maple or red maple, doesn’t produce sweet sap like the sugar maple, and it has some of the lowest quality of wood.
But if we stop comparing the silver maple to its cousins, it is an absolutely fine and lovely tree. It has uniquely silver undersides for its leaves, its bark can be used as a medicine, and they provide food for all kinds of forest-dwelling creatures.
If you’re interested in knowing more about trees after you read more about Acer saccharinum, head on over to 101 Types of Trees to keep the learning going!
Though it is one of the most common trees in the United States, the silver maple is less beloved than its relatives. It comes with many nicknames: creek maple, river maple, Silverleaf maple, soft maple, large maple, swamp maple, white maple, or water maple; most of these nicknames have to do with where it grows.
This tree is a fast-growing, deciduous, medium to large tree that leaves usually between 80 and 130 years. It is very closely related to the red maple, and they are the only 2 of the maple species which produce their fruit in the spring instead of the fall. This allows their numbers to be higher.
Silver maples grow in a great variety of environments, and they get their name from their leaves. Covered with a beautiful shiny, downy, silvery underside, the slightest breeze will cause a flutter, creating a metallic foliage dance.
What does Silver Maple Trees Look Like?
Silver maples will only naturally grow in areas that have very moist soil. For this reason, they develop lateral roots. These roots will rarely grow any deeper than 10 inches in the soil, and they will grow in a widespread manner, sometimes the same distance as their crown reaches in the sky.
It is important to know that because of these shallow, fibrous roots, they will easily cause damage to drain pipes and septic systems, and they can really displace foundations and put cracks in sidewalks as well.
The silver maple is one of the smaller of the maple species (though not nearly as small as the Japanese maple) and will usually be between 15 and 25 meters tall. However, the tallest silver maple on record is 35 meters tall. Their trunks are slightly thinner relatively and are usually around 15 inches in diameter.
These trees have impressively expansive crowns, and their branches will usually have a spread between 11 and 15 meters, almost equally the height of their trunk. This shape creates a very robust, full, and round crown.
The bark of a young tree is light gray and very smooth, whereas the bark of a mature tree is a much darker gray with shaggy peeling bark. The branches of any age of tree are usually a gray-silver color and quite smooth.
The most defining characteristics of maple trees are their leaves, and usually where they obtain their names. All maple leaves are simple and 5 lobed. The silver maple leaf is 3-7 inches long, palmately veined, with deep notches between each lobe. Each lobe ends in a narrow and pointed serrated tip.
A slender leaf stalk is 2-5 inches long, and the slightest breeze will reveal the true quality of the silver maple. The topside of the leaf is bright green, whereas the silvery underside is covered in metallic downy hairs.
The autumn colors of the silver are definitely the least striking of all the maple species. Fall foliage is usually a pale yellow or orange color, and silver maple leaves will drop earlier than other species as well.
How do Silver Maples Reproduce?
The reproductive process of silver maples is a little bit all over the place. There are some trees that have unisex flowers, there are some that have bisexual flowers, and there are even some that are polygamodioecious. This long word indicates that flowers on one tree can be either male, female, or monoecious (possessing both sexual characteristics, allowing for self-pollination).
And if all of that weren’t complicated enough, under exactly ideal growing conditions, silver maple flowers are able to even switch their gender; from male to female, male to hermaphroditic, and from hermaphroditic to female. They grow in dense clusters and emerge in very early spring.
A silver maple flower is small and red with 5 petals, and 6 long stamens protruding from the middle. This comes from a 5 lobed calyx (reproductive leaf organ) at the twig tip. Staminate flowers (pollen producing-male flowers) are sessile (having no stalk) and pistillate flowers (ovule producing-female flowers) have one pistil that is formed from two carpels with a superior ovary.
There are many ways in which the silver maple can become fertilized, it just depends on what kind of flowers they produce. Whether they be self-pollinated, wind-pollinated, or insect-pollinated, the fruit they produce emerges in the late spring.
The fruit is a samara, which is a winged seed. These pods grow on slender stems and are of varying colors, from dull brown to dull red. They ripen throughout April and June and become mature before leaves are fully matured. Then these samaras are released during a two week period usually occurring between April and July.
A healthy, mature silver maple can produce crops of between 91,000 and 1,000,000 seeds in a season. These trees become sexually mature usually around the age of 11 and will produce huge seed crops almost every year.
Seeds will germinate almost right away, and they spread to far-reaching areas thanks to their winged pods. Because silver maples grow so close to waterways, seeds are often carried along down streams and germinate on river and stream banks to continue that tradition.
What are some Other Types of Maple Tree?
Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)
This variety of maple is native from eastern France to Russia, from Scandinavia to Iran. These trees grow to be between 20 and 30 meters tall and differ from other species with their smooth mature bark. They grow similarly shaped leaves to the red maple, but their fall foliage is usually yellow or orange.
Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
This variety of maple is a native tree to Japan, Korea, China, Mongolia, and Russia. These trees are considered small trees or shrubs, and grow to be only 10 meters tall. They differ from the red maple by their multiple thin trunks and pointier 5 lobed leaves. They also have a huge variety of leaf color, from purple to red to yellow to brown.
Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
This variety of maple is native to the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. These trees grow to be 25-30 meters in height and are the most abundant of all maple. Their main characteristics are that their stalks, twigs, leaves, flowers, and buds are all varying shades of red.
Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
This variety of maple is native to the eastern United States and Canada. These trees are the largest of all maples, ranging from 25-35 meters. They are best known for their tapping purposes to make maple syrup. They also have the most striking autumn blaze and can have every color of a leaf on the same tree.
Where do Silver Maple Trees Grow?
Silver maples are native to the eastern half of North America. They will usually grow in areas that are more moist than dry, and their growing regions dive further south than other maples.
Whereas most will stay in eastern North America, the silver maple will also grow southward towards Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Venezuela. They are nearly absent from the coastal plains of America and are contained within the Appalachian mountains.
Otherwise, they are present in every state and province of the eastern half of North America. Their main requirements are ample sunlight and moist soil. They are less tolerant of dry conditions than the red maple, though it will survive if planted in dry conditions.
What are the Growing Conditions of Silver Maple Trees?
The main thing to know about the appropriate growing zone of the silver maple is that it can be incredibly varying. Though it may not be prosperous, it will survive in almost any type of soil, and type of temperature or humidity level, and any level of alkaline soil or acidic soil.
That being said, the silver maple does have preferences. It will be happiest growing along waterways in wetlands, which is where the name “water maple” comes from.
The silver maple is the most sun-loving of all the maple species, and this is the main specific growing condition it needs. Full sunlight, all day long. They can survive in partial shade, but truly will not be happy. Keep this in mind when planting a silver maple.
How are Silver Maple Trees Used?
Though the sap that comes from the silver maple is nowhere near as sweet as that of the sugar maple, it doesn’t go completely unused. It isn’t used for maple syrup production, but it has been used in the past to make sugar, medicine, or as a yeast riser for bread making.
Sugar maple wood is very light and easily workable, though it is probably of lesser quality than other maple woods. Its wood is used as lumber for furniture, cabinet, flooring, and tool handle making. The wood is rather brittle, however, because of its fast growth.
The greatest attribute of the silver maple is its resilience. It is extremely tolerable of slightly unpleasant environments and can tolerate urban pollution and road salt. They’re popular as a street tree or shade tree, because of their quick growth and easy propagation. It was greatly planted as a replacement for the American elm after it was decimated after the blight epidemic.
A hybrid was made, combining the red maple and the silver maple to create the Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii). This was in an effort to create a cultivar that was less brittle, had less invasive roots, but still had the quick-growing aspect of the silver maple, coupled with the beauty of the red maple. They are also resilient to verticillium rot.
The silver maple is snacked on by many animal species. Buds are a primary source of food for squirrel species that come to the spring thaw. Seeds are eaten by birds, chipmunks, and squirrels. The bark is eaten by deer and beavers. Leaves are food for various lepidopteran species, including the rosy maple moth (dryocampa rubicunda). And finally, cavities sometimes develop in silver maple trunks, creating the perfect home for opossums, owls, woodpeckers, raccoons, and squirrels.
Is silver maple good firewood?
Silver maple wood is considered as being a medium to poor firewood — they do not have hard maple wood. Because these trees are so fast-growing, their wood is brittle, soft, and not very durable. It doesn’t have a very high heat capacity and lets off a lot of smoke because of its sap content. It is not a bad choice, but it is not the first choice for firewood.
Can silver maple trees be used for syrup?
Because the sap that comes from the silver maple tree has a very low sugar content, it would not only take an enormous amount of sap to produce a small amount of syrup, it wouldn’t taste very good.
That being said, silver maples have been tapped before and the syrup has been made, but not nearly to the same degree as the sap from the sugar maple tree.
Do silver maples grow in Florida?
Though silver maples do prefer to grow in wet regions, they tend to keep away from the salty air. There are sparse populations of silver maples in central Florida, though they tend to keep away from the coastal regions.
How quickly does silver maple grow?
Silver maples are extremely fast-growing trees, and can sometimes sprout between 1-2 meters a year. Though if you plant a tree in dry soil, it will grow far less quickly.
How long do silver maple trees live?
Silver maples aren’t a very long-lived trees. Some have survived up to 150 years, but the median age is closer to being 80 years.
How tall do silver maples get?
Silver maples are some of the smaller species of a maple tree, and will usually keep their growth between 15 and 25 meters high.
When should I prune a silver maple tree?
Many believe that the growth of the silver maple is unattractive when they aren’t trained or pruned. Others believe that trees truly do not need the help of humans to grow properly, and it is purely at the discretion of the property owner.
That being said, it is best to never prune a silver maple in the winter, as the wound will continuously bleed sap and create a huge mess. Reserve pruning for the late summer or fall, and keep to branches that appear as being sick or wounded, or branches that are interfering with other branches’ growth.
How deep are silver maple roots?
Silver maple roots are very shallow and fibrous. They never usually grow deeper than 10 inches into the soil — this can cause some major infrastructural issues if they’re planted too close to plumbing or foundation.
When do silver maple seeds fall?
The seed that falls from the silver maple will do so in the spring.
What color do silver maples turn in the fall?
Silver maples have some of the lesser lovely fall foliage, and will usually turn a pale yellow or pale orange color before they shed.
What is the difference between a red maple and a silver maple?
There are several differences between the red maple and silver maple. Firstly, the silver maple is about 10 meters shorter than the red maple tree. Their leaves are slightly different, with red maples having wider leaves, and silver maples have a more narrow and pointy leaf blade.
Otherwise, their reproduction strategies, bark type, growth pattern, and shedding habits are very very similar.