Plant these maples. Steer clear of those.

Paperbark maple.
Paperbark maple. Paul Meyer, Morris Arboretum.

Some maples are to love (sugar maples) and others not (Norway maples, because they’re an invasive species). But there’s more to maples than those two — including some you might like or dislike depending on where they are growing.

I once lived in a house where two stately silver maples graced the front yard. Aside from their enormous size, these two trees had little about them to love. Silver maples have soft wood, tend to drop branches and big flakes of bark, and offers leaves with no color worth looking at in autumn. The roots can be frightening large and shallow, as I learned upon encountering what looked like an elephant’s leg pushing into the crawl space of the house.

On the positive side, silver maples grow very fast, tolerate almost any soil, and look nice in wild settings and swampy areas. I just wouldn’t want one near my home.

A very good one and a bad one

You’ll also find red maples in similar wet and wild settings. Red maples are very variable, and the best have much to offer: sturdy wood, cosmopolitan disposition, and reddish young leaves, flowers, and seeds.

In autumn, the color of red maple foliage rivals and complements that of sugar maple. This tree is deservedly popular, so much so that superior varieties have been identified and named, some with upright form, others with leaves that stay red all season long or have particularly flamboyant autumn leaf color, and still others with various combinations of these qualities.

Before moving on to other lovable maples, let’s backtrack to another less desirable one. Although maple is not in its name, boxelder is a maple, one that, like silver maple, is fast-growing and weak-wooded. The only things this tree has going for it are that it grows just about anywhere and its overall form is pleasing.

Many more maples

Striped maple is another one that I would not recommend planting but that can be loved in its native, woodsy settings. It grows poorly outside of forests, and is not particularly notable in form or autumn leaf color. But you can enjoy its bright green leaves in summer and its distinctively striped bark as you walk in the woods year-round.

Sugar maple hardly needs mentioning because it’s so familiar for its strong wood, stately form, and fiery fall color. On the downside, this tree is finicky about soil conditions, not faring well if the ground is re-graded near its roots or where road salt is used.

Across the Pacific are some other lovable maples. So-called Japanese maples, which actually represent more than one species and hundreds of varieties, are known for their pleasing forms and for their leaves. The leaves have a delicate beauty both in summer and autumn.

Less well-known are such Asian gems as trident maple and Amur maple. Both are small trees whose leaves turn a rich burgundy in autumn. The trident maple has bark that is made orange, gray, and brown as small flakes naturally peel away. Amur maple can be trained as a small tree or a large bush, and has fragrant, white flowers in spring that are followed at the end of summer by seeds with burgundy wings.

A year-round favorite

I saved one of my favorite maples for last, and that is the paperbark, which asks to be both looked at and touched. This tree tolerates all sorts of soils and would, no doubt, be more popular if it were easier to propagate.

This handsome, small tree is vase-shaped like our American elm and has dark green, slightly bluish leaves. In autumn, the leaves turn a brilliant red color. The autumn show is fleeting, but no matter. Even after the leaves drop, the tree more than earns its keep with its reddish bark, which wraps around the trunk like burnished copper and peels away in paper-thin curls.

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