Maple Trees in Kentucky: Species for Identification


The types of maple trees found in Kentucky are sugar maple, red maple, bigleaf maple, and hedge maple.

1. Sugar Maple

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is one of the most common and beloved maple trees in Kentucky. This deciduous tree is best known for its brilliant fall colors ranging from bright yellow to burnt orange to deep red.

The foliage provides a stunning display in the fall across the state.

Sugar maples thrive in the rich, moist soils of Kentucky’s forests. These trees can reach heights of 100 feet or more. The sugar maple has a rounded oval crown that spreads nearly as wide as the tree is tall.

The bark is grey and furrowed.

The sugar maple is an important source of maple syrup production in North America. The sap is gathered in late winter and boiled down to produce the sweet syrup.

Sugar maples have a higher sugar content than other maple species.

These trees prefer partial shade but can also grow in full sun. Sugar maples are very slow growing, only adding about a foot per year.

Some sugar maples in Kentucky forests are estimated to be over 200 years old.

In addition to maple syrup from the sap, the sugar maple provides important timber. The fine-grained wood is used for furniture, flooring, cabinets, musical instruments like guitars, and many other purposes.

Sugar maple is the state tree of Kentucky.

2. Red Maple

The red maple (Acer rubrum) is the most abundant and widespread maple tree native to North America.

This adaptable tree thrives across Kentucky, growing in forests, along stream banks, as well as urban landscaping.

Red maples take their name from the striking red flowers, buds, twigs and seeds. The fall leaf color is usually a brilliant red or orange, adding bold color to the autumn scenery.

Red maples typically reach 40-60 feet tall with a rounded oval shape.

These fast growing trees prefer moist soils but tolerate a wide range of soil types and moisture levels. Red maples can thrive in both shady forest understories and open sunny locations.

The tree’s high tolerance makes it a common choice for landscaping.

Red maple timber is used for furniture, veneer, flooring, musical instruments, boxes, baskets and pulpwood.

The sap can be boiled into a light maple syrup, although it has lower sugar content than sugar maple sap.

Native Americans used parts of the red maple for medicines and dye.

Red maples provide important ecological benefits too. The flowers are an early spring food source for bees. Red maple leaves breakdown quickly after falling, releasing nutrients into the soil.

The trees provide nesting habitat for birds.

3. Bigleaf Maple

The aptly named bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) showcases the largest leaves of any maple. This rare species occurs in limited areas of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.

Bigleaf maple has the largest leaves of any maple, measuring up to 12 inches wide! The five lobed leaves are thick and leathery. Bigleaf maples take advantage of the increased photosynthesis from their huge leaves.

These trees thrive in moist soils along streams and on moist mountain slopes. Bigleaf maples typically reach heights of 100 feet. The crown shape is narrow and irregular or rounded.

The bigleaf maple bark is reddish-brown when young and becomes furrowed with scaly ridges with age. Interestingly, Native Americans used the bark to make baskets and clothing.

In autumn, the large leaves fade to a pale gold color before falling to the ground. Bigleaf maple wood is used for furniture, piano frames, and other specialty woodworking.

The trees also provide important habitat for birds, small mammals, and amphibians.

4. Hedge Maple

The hedge maple (Acer campestre) is a small maple species that grows in a shrub-like form. It is native to Europe and Western Asia but can be found occasionally in landscaped areas of Kentucky.

Hedge maple has a dense rounded crown that resembles a hedge when trimmed or kept low by browsing animals. The branches are stiff and spreading.

This maple only reaches 15-20 feet high but can spread 10-20 feet wide.

The leaves are small, typically 2-5 inches wide with 3-5 shallow lobes. Fall color is a pale yellow. The bark is grayish-brown and corky in texture.

This species prefers full sun and is very tolerant of heat, drought, pollution, salt, and soil compaction. The hedge maple is one of the few maples that can thrive as street trees.

Hedge maple timber is hard and finely grained. It was traditionally used for woodworking and furniture.

Bonsai enthusiasts also favor this maple species for shaping into miniature trees.

The tiny green flowers appear in spring and develop into winged fruit. Hedge maple provides pollen for bees and habitat for songbirds.

Deer also browse on the shrub-like maples.

Conclusion

Kentucky’s diverse forests and landscapes are home to several species of maple trees. From the towering sugar maple that displays vibrant fall colors to the abundant and adaptable red maple, maples are an important group of trees.

Less common bigleaf maple and hedge maple also occur in pockets of the state. Maples provide ample benefits from sap and syrup production to timber uses to ecological habitats in the circle of forest life.

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