Although it’s not exclusively a southeastern piedmont tree, this majestic resident of our forests and backyards merits much appreciation from this piedmont gardener. Red Maple (Acer rubrum) — sometimes called Swamp Maple because wetlands are a favored habitat — is most beloved for its spectacular fall color. In the native species, fall color ranges from deep maroons to warm oranges to sunny yellows.
For reliable deep red fall color, Michael A. Dirr, author of my woody plants “bible,” Manual of Woody Landscape Plants (I consulted the 5th edition) suggests investing in a named variety. He lists well over two dozen to choose from. He also suggests that you buy a tree grown near you, geographically speaking. Apparently, a red maple from a Maryland nursery is less likely to thrive in an Alabama yard, and vice versa.
I agree that the fall color is great, but my favorite time for the Red Maples is right now. Individually, their red flowers are small. However, the combined effect of hundreds of flower-covered branches on a canopy-sized tree brings a sleeping winter forest to life again.
The red glow of these flowers confirms the turning of the seasons. Spring is returning to the forest canopy. Soon the maple flowers will be joined by the myriad catkin flowers of ashes, oaks, and hickories. Pollen clouds will swirl from tree to tree, ensuring pollination for all and hay fever for many.
As I hack and sneeze my way through another spring, I’ll remind myself that pollen brings continuing life to the forest. Even so, after a week or two of suffering, I’ll have another reason besides the severe drought to pray for heavy rains. Such rains settle the yellow-green cloud, creating chartreuse-edged puddles and helping newly pollinated flowers generate fruits, propelling the seasons forward into summer’s abundance.