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What is a Sugar Maple Tree?

The sugar maple is part of the same flowering plant species as both the soapberry and lychee — the Sapindaceae family — through lychees and sugar maples don’t have all that much in common.

Sugar maples are cold-loving trees (hence why their sugar maple’s leaf is on the flag of the cold white north). This tree is native to Canada but has developed stands all of eastern North America. Funnily enough, the Canadian maple leaf isn’t actually a specific maple leaf at all, but a mish-mash of a red maple leaf and a sugar maple leaf.

You probably already know about the tree because of its coveted sugar maple sap, but there is far more to know about this spectacular tree! Keep reading to learn all the details about Acer Saccharum, or head on over to learn about 101 Types of Trees!

We also have full descriptions of the Japanese Maple, Red Maple, and Silver Maple.


Acer Saccharum

Possibly the most recognizable tree of all of North America, the sugar maple is an absolute fan favorite. It also goes by the name of rock maple, sweet maple, birds eye maple, sugar tree, curly maple, and hard maple, and it’s not all that difficult to understand why.

The sugar maple is world-renowned for its production of sweet sap, which is what is used to create the famous, all Canadian, maple syrup. They are also known for their unparalleled beauty of fall foliage, and young maple wood has a very dedicated niche market of furniture makers.

Closeup of sugar maple tree with fall foliage.

This large deciduous tree is fast-growing and long-living. The average mature age of sugar maple is 200 years old, but there are many accounts of the living to be 300 under the right conditions. Did you know that the Canadian flag isn’t actually a specific maple leaf? It is a mish-mash of all types of maple leaves, though it most resembles a hybrid of the red maple and sugar maple.

What does Sugar Maple Trees Look Like?

Root System

The sugar maple is a species of maple that develops the deepest set of roots. They engage in a mechanism called hydraulic lift, which means that they draw water from deep in the soil into their roots, and then excrete that water into the more shallow, drier soils. This not only helps the tree, but it helps surround plant species as well who may be a little thirsty.

These fibrous roots have been known to interfere with grass growth, plumbing, and infrastructure due to their erratic growth in search of moisture.


Tall sugar maples

The average sugar maple grows to be between 25 and 35 meters in height with a trunk diameter of up to 2 meters. A 10-year-old tree will usually be about 10 meters tall. The largest living sugar maple on record is 34.1 meters tall, trunk diameter of 5.92 meters, and a crown span of 27.7 meters.

Growth Pattern

Maples grow in the forest will more commonly have tall narrow trunks with branches that start to emerge higher up along the trunk, with a narrow canopy. Maples that grow in open fields or in urban settings will have wider trunks where branches begin their growth lower down on the trunk, developing a more rounded and robust canopy.


The bark of a young tree will be a light gray color and is smooth and lightly textured. The bark of a mature tree will have developed shaggy bark and will have a deepened gray color. Sugar maple bark varies very little from tree to tree.


Sugar maple autumn leaves

A sugar maple leaf will usually be about 8 inches long and wide and is palmately veined. Leaves are borne in opposite pairs on a twig with 5 lobes; basal lobes are small then the 3 upper lobes. The 3 upper loves are deeply notched with serrated margins. Relative to the silver maple who has pointed notches, the sugar maple has a more rounded interior notch.

The most characteristic feature of the sugar maple is its spectacular leaf color. Though they start their lives as being a soft green, they go through quite a color journey throughout their lifetimes. They spend a short amount of time being deep green in the summer, before the fall. Come fall time, leaves can be anywhere from golden, yellow, orange, red, scarlet, purple, or brown. Leaves change at different times, and there are some trees that possess all of those colors at the same time.

The sugar maple leaf buds are brown and pointy, and twigs are firstly dark green that eventually turns a deep brown color. Leaf petioles are green and when snapped will ooze out a clear and sticky sap.

How do Sugar Maple Trees Reproduce?


Flowers of a sugar maple tree

The reproductive process of sugar 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, sugar 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 sugar maple flower grows in panicles of 5-10 clusters that are a light yellowish-green color and are apetalous. 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.


Whether a sugar maple becomes fertilized through self-pollination, wind pollination, or insect pollination, the resulting fruit is a pair of samaras. A samara is a winged seed, with one fruit contained 1 globose seed and a set of 2 papery wings.

Samaras fall in the autumn and they must experience a total of 45 days in a temperature below 39 degrees Fahrenheit in order for their protective casings to be broken down. The germination process of sugar maple seeds is quite slow, and many of them won’t be viable until the following spring upon the first warm day.

Sexual Maturity

Sugar maple seeds

Sugar maples are slow growers in terms of sexual maturity. Trees will start to flower anywhere between the age of 10 and 200, though the minimum seed-bearing age is 20 years old. These trees are the only species known that have a freezing temperature requirement in order to be reproductively successful.

What Are Some Other Types of Maple Tree?

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)

Red and green Norway maple trees lining a wood fence.

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)

Japanese red maple tree

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.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)

Silver maple tree

This variety of maple is native to the eastern United States and southeastern Canada. These trees grow to be 15-25 meters in height and are the most sunlight demanding of all maples. Their leaves are similar to that of the sugar maple, but their fall colors are far less pronounced.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Red maples during autumn.

This variety of maple is native to the eastern United States and Canada. These trees are one of the largest of all maples, ranging from 25-38 meters. They are known for all of their red features; red flowers, red twigs, redbuds, and red leaves. They are also the most prevalent of maples and have a very diverse growing range.

Where do Sugar Maple Trees Grow?

Sugar shack in maple woods during winter.

Sugar maples are a native tree to Canada, mostly eastern Canada. They grow naturally from Nova Scotia through to southern Quebec, from southern Ontario towards southeastern Manitoba.

In the United States they will grow naturally through Minnesota to Maine, and southward towards northern Virginia, Tennessee, and Missouri.

Pure stands of sugar maples are rather common, as they absolutely are required to have cold winters for prosperous growth. These conditions exist east of the 42nd parallel, and in the USDA growing zones 3 through 5.

They are far less common in the southern United States where summers are too warm and winters aren’t cold enough. When they do occur in the south, they will mostly be found in moist flatlands and confined ravines.

What are the Growing Conditions of Sugar Maple Trees?


Sugar maples tend to be the lesser prevalent of the male species because of their specific temperature requirements. Both for the purpose of seed germination and proper sap production, sugar maples need winters with a full freeze.

In northern regions, they will only grow in areas that experience an average winter temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit, and an average summer temperature of 61 degrees Fahrenheit. In southern regions, they will only grow in areas that experience an average winter temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and an average summer temperature of 81 degrees Fahrenheit.


Like all other maple species, the sugar maple is tolerant of nearly every kind of soil except for pure sand. They will also perform rather poorly if growing in swampy conditions or poorly drained areas.

They prefer deep, well-drained loamy soil in order to develop a proper root system. The best type of soil for them is anywhere between loose clay to sandy soil with humus buildup.

Sun Exposure

Lush field with wooden fence and sugar maple.

The sugar maple is one of the most shade tolerant of all large deciduous trees. Most trees grow to impressive heights in order to gain a spot in the coveted forest canopy, but this is not the case with sugar maples.

This tolerance is estimated to have evolved from the tree’s seeds’ ability to germinate under a completely closed canopy and starting its life as an understory plant. Their rapid growth is in response to an opportunistic opening in the forest canopy.

What are Sugar Maples Used For?

Maple Syrup

First and foremost, sugar maples are the ultimate sap producing maple. They are usually paired up with black maple for economical maple syrup production. The sugar maple is the maple that produces the sweet and most clear sap.

Sugar maples are tapped (a small hole drilled in just below the outer bark) and a spout is placed to help drain the sap. The sap is collected and boiled to remove all of the water content. What is left, is maple syrup. For every 40 gallons of sap that are boiled down, only 1 gallon of syrup is made.


The sapwood of the sugar maple is an attractive white color and is renowned for its stability against climate conditions and durability. Small, young sugar maples’ logs apparently have higher quality wood. Sometimes sugar maple wood will have sugar marks from the sap content.

This wood has been used in the creation of basketball courts, and baseball bats (along with white ash wood). The floors of the NBA court is made from sugar maple wood.

There is also a famous “Canadian hardrock maple” that is used to make pool cues.

Musical Instruments

The sugar maple is famous for its wavy woodgrain, which manufacturers refer to as “birdseye maple”. These curly forms are very valuable and usually go into the manufacturing of high-quality musical instruments. This wood is used in the making of violin and guitar heads, piano pieces, and drum shells. This is because of their high torsional stability, crisp resonance, and tonal characteristics.


Sugar maples are extremely popular as an ornamental or street tree due to their beautiful foliage and easy care. However, sugar maples have become very intolerant to road salt and urban pollution, and after the 19th-century many sugar maples who died on city streets were replaced by the Norway maple.

Animal Use

Collecting sugar maple sap

Like all maples, the foliage, seeds, and buds are all a preferred snack for many forest-dwelling creatures. Twigs are eaten by white-tailed deer and other larger animals and are a very important source of food during the difficult winter months.


Does maple syrup come right out of the tree?

This a very common question, and a very common misconception. Trees do not bleed out pure maple syrup. There are many trees that produce sap, but the sugar maple is the tree that produces sap with the highest sugar content.

Sugar maples are tapped to help drain the sap flowing through it, and it is drained into a bucket. Once enough sap has been harvested it will be boiled down to remove all of the extra water content. It takes 40 gallons of sap to create 1 gallon of maple syrup.

Are sugar maples dioecious?

Sugar maples have a rather complex flowering system. Depending on the tree, it will either possess male flowers, female flowers, both sexes of flower (monoecious), or it can be bisexual as well (dioecious).

If all that were complicated enough, sugar maple flowers are actually sometimes able to be polygamodioecious, meaning that they are able to change their sexual characteristics — changing from female to hermaphroditic, hermaphroditic to male, and male to female.

Are sugar maples hardwood trees?

Sugar maples are economically valued as being a hardwood species, though their wood is not harvested as much as their sap is so make maple syrup.

Are sugar maples invasive?

There are some maple species that are considered as being invasive species, though the sugar maple is not one of them. The silver maple is considered as being semi-invasive because of its root system, and because it has so few growing conditions that it is able to thrive almost anywhere.

Are sugar maples messy?

Because sugar maples are deciduous trees, they will drop both their leaves and their fruit. Their entire leaf collection will drop in the fall, and their winged seeds will drop in the autumn. This may be considered as being a messy landscape tree, but most deciduous trees are.

If having a clean yard is a priority, planting a coniferous tree that does not shed its foliage is probably a better option.

Are sugar maples fast-growing?

Sugar maples are fast-growing trees, being able to grow anywhere between 15 inches and 35 inches in a year. This is because sugar maple seeds are accustomed to germinating in a dense forest canopy setting, and so do not need full sunlight for proper growth.

However, not all maples have this quality. The silver maple, for example, requires full sun exposure all day long, and will not tolerate particularly cold temperatures like the sugar maple can.

Do sugar maples have helicopters?

Sugar maples produce fruit in the form of samaras, with are seeds that have papery wings encompassing them. These winged pods are more commonly known as “helicopters” for the way that they fall from the sky in a whirling fashion.

How tall do sugar maples grow?

Sugar maples are large trees and will grow to be between 25 and 30 meters in their lifetime. The largest sugar maple on record grew to be 34.1 meters in height.

How long do sugar maples live?

Sugar maples are relatively long-lived trees, and will usually live to be about 200 years old, but there are accounts of trees that have lived to be over 300 years old in the exact right conditions.

When do sugar maple trees drop their seeds?

The seeds from a sugar maple tree will be dropped in autumn. Rather unusually for a seed which usually requires warm temperatures, the sugar maple seed will only properly germinate in cold temperatures. Cold weather will help break down the protective layer, and the seed will then germinate in the very early spring once the first warm day hits.

Is sugar maple good firewood?

Sugar maple is both a dense and strong firewood, and so if it were burned it would do so slowly with a high heat capacity. However, because of its high sap content, it would probably create quite a plume of smoke.

Additionally, because sugar maples are so valued for their sap production and high-quality wood, many would consider it as being a waste to used sugar maple as firewood.

When should you prune a sugar maple?

When it comes to pruning trees, that is entirely up to the aesthetic preferences of the property owner. Trees don’t need the help of humans to grow properly. If one is intent on pruning, it is best to save it for branches that appear as being sick or wounded.

The best time of year to prune a tree is in the fall. If one were to prune a sugar maple in the wintertime, it would continuously bleed sap from the wound which would create quite a large mess.

Why do maple trees vary in sweetness?

There are many variables that contribute to the sweetness of sap that a tree produces. Sugar maple sap is the sweetest, though all maples do produce sap.

Sugar maples produce the sweetest sap because of their specific growing conditions, and cold temperatures help with the sugar content in their sap. Sweetness will also vary from tree to tree, and that content is affected by sun exposure, soil quality, the surrounding plant life, to the annual temperature changes as well.

How do you identify a sugar maple?

Sugar maples are easily identifiable trees. They have smoothish gray bark and rounded canopies. It is easy to recognize a maple tree by its leaves, and the sugar maple has leaves with 5 lobes. They have deep angular notches and the 2 basal loves are smaller than the 3 upper lobes.

Depending on the time of year, the sugar maple foliage can be a vast array of colors. They range from yellow, golden, orange, red, scarlet, purple, and brown. Sometimes a tree will have all of the colors present at the same time.

What is the difference between sugar maple and red maple?

Sugar maples and red maples are closest to one another in terms of dimensions and growing patterns. They share similar bark and leaf shape, though red maples possess red stalks, twigs, leaves, buds, and flowers.

Sugar maples will have brown or gray stalks, twigs, and buds, green flowers, and a vast color array of fall foliage.

What is the difference between sugar maple and silver maple?

Silver maples are far smaller than sugar maple trees, and the wood of the trees is of a different quality. Sugar maple is considered a hardwood, but silver maple is sometimes called “soft maple” because of its softwood.

How long before a sugar maple is mature?

Sugar maples will start to produce flowers as early as 10 years, though they will not be sexually mature until they are at least 20 years old. Their height of seed production is usually between the age of 40 and 150.

What is the best time to tap a sugar maple tree?

Sugar maple trees are usually tapped right around the first thaw of the season. This varies from year to year, but once the winter temperatures let up a little bit, that is how one knows it is time to tap a sugar maple tree.

How long can you leave a tap in a maple tree?

Sugar maple trees can have a tap left in them indefinitely, though most maples are not large enough to be tapped until they are about 40 years old.

How much sap does a maple tree produce each day?

A maple tree is usually able to produce around 3.2 gallons of sap per day and around 14 gallons of sap per season. Sometimes trees are tapped more than once to quicken the sap flow process.

What is a paperbark maple

Paperbark maple is a species of maple native to China that only grows at high altitudes with green leaves. It gets its name from the way that its bark exfoliates in thin strips, very similar to birch trees that grow in North America.

What is maple sugar?

Maple sugar is simply maple syrup that has been cooked a little longer. In the process of making maple syrup, there is no right recipe — it is simply boiled until the desired consistency is achieved. There is still water in the syrup, just a much smaller amount.

In order to make maple sugar, the reduction process isn’t stopped until no water is left at all, and what remains are granular pieces of maple sap that resembles brown sugar.