Silver Maple Fact Sheet - by Mark D. Inlis

(Please click on links for photos.)

 The undersides of the leaves are much lighter than the tops and can shimmer like silver when wind ruffles the leaves, giving Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) its common name.

Description: It is a tree that reaches sixty to eighty feet in height (the record tree in the Big Tree Register is one hundred and fifteen feet tall), with grayish bark in scales, peeling in older trees. Leaves are five-lobed, usually with three major lobes, and deeply cut between the lobes. Fall color is usually yellow, especially on the leaves in shade. Silver Maples native to the Finger Lakes can have leaves with yellow fall color, but they also may be any shade of red from orange to red-purple, especially on the leaves in full sun.

Range: The native range is from the coast of New Brunswick to central Minnesota, south to Mississippi and Alabama

Habitat: The Silver Maple is a tree of wet, somewhat alkaline bottomlands and floodplains. In our area, it grew primarily in the valleys of the streams that flow into the Finger Lakes. It was widely planted as a street and lawn tree in the mid-twentieth century, so it is now often seen in our cities and towns.

Similar species: The closely-related Red Maple (Acer rubrum) can occupy a similar habitat, although it prefers a more acid soil and grows in drier locations as well. It blooms with similar, showier red flowers a week or two later. It has shallowly-cut, wider-lobed leaves that usually turn red in the fall. When I was a boy, we (non-botanists) distinguished between the Red Maple, an upland tree with bright red fall color; and the Scarlet or Swamp Maple, a wetland tree with red-orange fall color. Although these could have been anything (the Silver Maple is highly variable in leaf form and fall color), the Scarlet Maple that I knew was probably a hybrid between the Silver and Red Maples called Acer x freemanii or Freeman’s Maple. It blends the characteristics of both parents, and it may look more or less like either. Hybrid individuals that favor the Silver Maple parent can be very difficult to distinguish from that species.

Culture: Silver Maple is easily grown from seed or softwood cuttings; it transplants readily and grows the most rapidly of all the maples. It grows almost anywhere in zones 3 - 7 under a wide variety of conditions; it survives seasonal inundation, poor soil and (surprisingly for a wetland tree) drought. For these reasons it was a nurseryman’s dream, and was widely sold and used as a shade tree in the middle of last century. The drawbacks are that the dense, shallow root system can buckle pavements, invade pipes, and prevent almost anything except grass from growing under the trees; also, older trees have a somewhat exaggerated reputation for losing their lower limbs in ice and wind storms. It is seldom planted in North America today. Nurserymen seem to prefer the hybrid, Acer freemanii, which can have all the best attributes of the Silver Maple without all the drawbacks, and with a bright red fall color if desired. At its best, the Silver Maple is a fast-growing shade tree with three-season interest: very early spring flowers that can equal those of the Red Maple, an vase-shaped form similar to the American Elm with elegantly dissected leaves that cast a medium shade (the narrow upright selections are less prone to breakage as well), and lovely fall color. With careful selection and placement, there are still uses for this beautiful tree. It is often a good choice in soils so poor little else will grow. Just don’t plant it to shade your garden, and if you must plant it near a sidewalk, you might try structural soil under the pavement to give the roots a place to grow (see the article at

Cultivars: 'Laciniatum Wieri' is a cultivar with a slightly weeping habit and extremely deeply-cut leaves with very slender lobes, almost like a Japanese maple. It was discovered in Belgium and introduced in North America by Ellwanger and Barry, the famous mail-order nursery in Rochester, NY. It and similar cut-leaved cultivars were widely planted as street trees. 'Silver Queen', despite its name, is a clone of a male tree and so produces few seeds, reducing the seed-litter problem (and the resulting seedling-litter problem) of most maples.