KC Gardens

Red maples: If you must plant do so with caution

Red maple, fall color

Tip of the Week

If you have followed my rantings — I mean columns — over the years, you will know that I am not a fan of the red maple tree. I have bashed this tree for its poor branching structure; thin, easily damaged bark; and the fact that it is highly overplanted. So it will come as a surprise when I somewhat sing its praises.

Who cannot love the fall color of the red maple? Over the past few weeks this tree has been putting on a show. Red maple, like its name implies, has a wonderful clear, brilliant red to burgundy fall color. As I have been driving around the area, you can spot these trees up and down the streets and from miles away, as they stand out from our yellow trees on the hillsides throughout Kansas City.

As a result of this fall display you might be thinking “should I add a red maple to my landscape?” If you are thinking along these lines then I have a few suggestions to help make this investment a success. You would not believe the number of calls and e-mails I get about this tree. In most cases, when the calls come in it is a result of poor care, which frankly has only one solution and that solution is not popular, as the recommendation is a one-cut pruning process and starting over.

Young red maples have a very thin and light colored bark. That translates to its being very easily damaged. Heck, you can look at it crosswise and it will crack. Since the bark is so thin handle with care. This process starts at the nursery. Select trees that have bark intact. Avoid any trees in the nursery rows that show any sign of injury.

The next step is to get it home without damage. The bark layer can be damaged by something as simple as a sturdy grip with a pair gloves while wrestling it into the truck, or the bump across the tailgate as the tree bounces in transport. I would suggest wrapping the entire trunk with bubble wrap, an old pillow, or a blanket as you transfer the tree from the garden center to your yard. I have seen trees that have been scarred for life just from hitting the tailgate a few times.

Once planted it is time to swing into action and get rid of the grass around the tree. Any nick with a lawn mower or weed whip will spell doom. The best recommendation is to remove all the turf within an area at least 3 to five 5 feet from the trunk. Then apply a generous 3 inches of wood chip mulch around the tree.

Red maples are also sensitive to winter injury because of the light colored bark. The recommendation is to wrap the main trunk with a tree wrap product to protect it from winter sunscald. The result of winter injury is a long vertical crack, usually on the south to west side of the tree. This happens over winter when the bark layer is frozen and the warming sun rays hit the trunk resulting in the absorption of heat, which quickly thaws the frozen cells causing them to rupture.

Tree wrap is a soft flexible paper or plastic product that covers the trunk from the base until reaching the first couple of branches. The tree wrap should be put on once the leaves drop in the fall and removed after the tree leafs out in the spring. Continue this practice each fall until the tree’s bark has started to darken or become thicker and corkier. This may be the first 10 years of the tree’s life.

Even with following these guidelines I still have reservations about planting this tree, as it is highly overplanted in many areas. Look up and down the street. If yours is lined with this tree then pick another species. If you see few in the neighborhood then maybe this tree is in your future.

One other comment; don’t be tempted by red maple crosses. Some of the varieties on the market are crosses of red and silver maple, oftentimes referred to as Freeman maples, Acer x freemanii. These trees have the great fall color but will have a very weak branching habit under wind, ice and snow. This is also a potential problem with red maple Acer rubrum.

So there you have it, me eating my own words about never planting a red maple. I am relaxing my stance a little for those that must have the fall color. But keep in mind this tree will require thoughtful care to make it a long lasting landscape tree. I guess go ahead and enjoy your fall color, as it does put a smile on your face.

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