University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Fall News Article


Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont
Think of New England in the fall and you likely think of the brilliant colors of the sugar maples.  Although the sugar maple species provides the fall color of forests, there are some cultivars (cultivated varieties) of it great for landscapes, plus some other good maples to consider for cold northern climates. All these mentioned are hardy to USDA zone 4 (-20 to -30 degrees F) unless noted.
The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) makes an excellent shade and lawn tree, with an upright oval to rounded shape and reaching 80 feet high and up to 60 feet wide.  It doesn't tolerate salt, soil compaction, or air pollution so may not be a good choice in cities and close to roads (yet you see many old trees along the backroads of New England).  'Green Mountain' is a selection with dark green summer leaves turning yellow-orange in fall, with an oval habit. Another oval selection, but with a wider range of fall color, is 'Flax Mill Majesty'.  Fall Fiesta has leathery green leaves turning primarily red in fall, and an upright rounded habit.  There are several with a narrow upright or "fastigiate" habit such as 'Barrett Cole'.
The red maple (Acer rubrum) is a native tree with showy orange to red flowers in spring, and orange to crimson fall leaves on trees reaching about 50 feet high.  Not all selections turn red in fall, some being yellow or greenish. The female trees may have brighter red flowers and leaves.  Best is to buy a tree in the fall so you know what color it will produce.
The red maple tolerates wet soils better than the sugar maple, but isn't as drought tolerant, so is sometimes called Swamp maple.   Best growth and color in red maples is in acidic soils. There are several cultivars you may find for sale, but all are not equally hardy.  Among the hardiest are 'Autumn Flame' with intense red fall leaves, 'Autumn Spire' that is taller than wide, 'Franksred' (also known as Red Sunset) with orange to red leaves in early fall, 'Northwood' with less brilliant orange-red fall color, and Northfire with early red fall leaves.
The silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is seen in many landscapes as it is fast growing, and tolerates a wide variety of soil types from dry to wet.  Being fast growing it tends to have a weak structure, subject to wind and ice damage, with leaves and branches littering lawns.  It tends to be shorter-lived than other maples, has poor yellow fall color, and its roots near the surface can cause sidewalks and pavement to buckle.  With these and other drawbacks, such as several insect pests, it is best used for temporary shade while other trees establish. 
A better choice than the silver maple is a hybrid of it and the red maple, the Freeman maple (Acer freemanii), having the best traits of both without their drawbacks.  'Jeffersred' has brilliant red fall color, and unlike its red maple parent will grow well in alkaline soils.  Celebration is a Freeman maple with good red and gold fall color, and tolerates urban conditions. Both these selections, as well as others you may find, are medium-size reaching about 40 to 50 feet high, and about 30 to 40 feet wide. 
Japanese maples are a very popular group of short maples, often seen in catalogs, which mostly are only reliably hardy to USDA zone 6 (0 to -10 degrees F).  A hardier alternative, sometimes living into zone 4, is the Korean maple (Acer pseudosieboldianum).  It has bright red, orange and purple colors in late fall and may reach 25 feet high and half that wide.
There are several other hardy maples that make small trees, generally 20 to 30 feet high at most. Striped maple or Moosewood (Acer pensylvanicum) is a native, understory tree of woodlands so likes part shade.  It is short-lived, but has colorful striped green and white bark, with attractive yellow fall leaves.
Amur maple (Acer tataricum subsp. ginnala) makes a short tree only about 15 feet tall, so is good under utility lines along streets. It may seed into natural areas, so may be considered invasive and should only be used along streets where choices are limited and far from wooded areas. Amur maple has attractive leaves, red fruit in summer, and red leaves in fall.
One of the choicest maples, and landscape plants in general, is unfortunately for us in the north only reliably hardy to USDA zone 5 (-10 to -20 degrees F).  Paperbark maple (Acer griseum) has outstanding peeling red-brown bark with bluish-green leaves turning reddish in fall.  This informally upright maple reaches about 20 to 30 feet high, and grows slowly.
Maples you should not consider are the boxelder (Acer negundo) and Norway maple (Acer platanoides).  The boxelder is a soft-wooded, weedy tree with weak branches subject to breaking in winds and ice.  It and the commonly seen Norway maples seed around profusely, and so have been placed on many invasive plant lists even though the box elder is native.  Winds blow their winged seeds, called "samaras", into wild areas where the resulting plants displace desirable native plants. The sugar and red maples make alternatives to the Norway maple. 
More tree ideas for landscapes can be found in references such as Landscape Plants for Vermont (, and The Homeowner's Complete Tree and Shrub Handbook (

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