Q: At this time of year, I always love to see the beautiful fall colors of the trees in town. Where I grew up, we always had gorgeous sugar maples, but I have heard that they don’t do very well here. Are there any maples that do well here and have great fall color?
A: When picturing a beautiful maple tree in its autumn foliage, many people (just as you did) immediately think of the fiery orange-red sugar maples (Acer saccharum), that they see in pictures of New England. You are right. Most sugar maples do not thrive in our arid growing conditions. They prefer a bit more moisture and acidic soil. However, don’t let that discourage you from considering a maple. If you choose an appropriate variety, a maple can be a gorgeous tree in your landscape.
If you have only limited space for your tree, the Colorado Nursery Association (CNA) recommends both the amur maple (Acer ginnala) and the tatarian maple (Acer tataricum). Each grows to nearly 20’ tall and has a 15 – 20’ spread. The ‘Flame’ variety of the amur maple turns bright red in the fall while the tatarian maple has variable fall color. In its publication, “Trees for Colorado Springs,” the Forestry Division of Colorado Springs Parks and Recreation also adds the bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) as a tree to try in a smaller area, growing to approximately 20’ in height and spread with yellowish orange-to-red fall color.
If you have a much larger space available, then you actually could consider the one sugar maple that does seem to like our growing conditions (think heat, wind, and drought). The caddo maple (Acer saccharum ‘Caddo’) is native to the dry areas of Oklahoma and does not require the moist, acidic soils that the New England versions do. The CNA also recommends several varieties of Norway maple (Acer platanoides), the red maple (Acer rubrum), and Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii) – a hybrid cross between the red and silver maple. Of these, the red maple and the ‘Autumn Blaze’ variety of the Freeman maple have the most striking fall colors.
We do have quite a few established silver maples (Acer saccharinum) in our area, especially in and around downtown Colorado Springs, but the Forestry Division warns against planting these trees due to their destructive root system, which causes problems for sidewalks and sewers. If you’ve ever walked downtown and encountered a severely cracked and lifted sidewalk, chances are pretty good that one of the nearest trees is a silver maple. Micheal Dirr, author of Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs, notes that the silver maple is likely the fastest growing maple species. Hence its wood tends to be weak, and it easily suffers broken limbs in high winds or heavy snows. The fall leaf color tends to be a bland pale yellow. Both Dirr and the Forestry Division are also unenthusiastic about the red maple because it has not proved to be as cold hardy as other maples in our area, and it requires more moisture as well.
If you are interested in planting a maple, now is an excellent time of year to start thinking about which specific maple you want to have in your landscape. Why? Because the maples are starting to put on their fall color display, and you can visit a local nursery to see which specific maples have the color you want. Note, however, that once the trees’ leaves start to change, it’s not really the best time to actually plant the trees. After mid-October is getting to be a bit late for fall tree planting. But you can make a note of the specific varieties and plan to purchase and plant them next spring.
Contributed by Carey Harrington, Certified Colorado Gardener
Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the “The Gazette.”