One of the more common trees found in landscapes and forests in Elkhart County is the maple. There are 14 species of maple native to the U.S. Each has its own character and uniqueness.

People often refer to maples as being either “hard” or “soft.” This is a reference to the quality of the wood. The hard maples include the sugar and black maple, and have great commercial value because of their strong, close grained wood, often used for making furniture, cabinets, flooring and wood trim. The hard maples are also the preferred trees to tap for making maple syrup, although the soft maples can be used for this purpose as well.

The soft maples include the silver and the red maples, and are used often as a fast growing tree in the landscape. Their fast growing nature makes them desirable to some people, but fast growing trees do tend to be dirtier and more prone to breakage during storms. Soft maples are less preferred by the timber industry than their hard maple cousins.

Soft maples frequently develop winter frost cracks, and sunscald on the trunk when they are young, leading many people to phone their tree nursery in fear their tree may die. For that reason, many nurseries no longer carry the soft maples, despite their popularity. Some cultivars of red maple have been developed with spectacular fall color, and yet, the reds are still shunned by many professionals because they can be dirty trees with surface roots.

When it comes to their use in landscaping, I too prefer the slower growing hard maples over the soft maples. Silver maple, in particular, does grow fast, but it has a habit of growing multiple upright trunks, all trying to be the leader in the tree. This leads to poor structure as the tree develops, and often means the tree will lose major branches in storms.

Another key difference between soft and hard maples is the time of the year when they produce seed. Soft maples produce seeds in the spring, often in large and prolific numbers. The hard maple’s seeds ripen in the fall, and like their soft cousins, are known to spin off the tree in helicopter fashion. The winged seeds are known as a samara, a word that also refers to a person with many friends.

Most every maple prefers a moist environment to grow. Wetlands in the area are teaming with several species of maple, including the black maple, silver maple and red maple. Sugar maples tend to be a bit higher up the slope than other maples. For a wildlife perspective, the hard maples are slightly better at producing mast for animals. Both soft and hard maples can provide habitat for nesting birds and animals.

Hard maples and red maples have a reputation of having very dense shade, capable of funneling water to the drip line, turning the shady area dry as a desert. Many homeowners find after a few years, the shade becomes so dense, and the soils so dry under these maples, it becomes nearly impossible to grow grass. Between the shade, the dry landscape and the inevitable roots that will surface, you are better off planting shade tolerant plants instead of attempting to grow grass.

Did you know that boxelder trees are also a part of the maple (Acer) family? Boxelders are a soft maple, growing fast and living a short life in respect to other trees. They are an oddball in the maple family, having a compound leaf with 3 to 7 leaflets. Boxelder are considered a dirty tree, with shallow roots, less than spectacular color in the fall, and the added disadvantage of having a nuisance insect known as the boxelder bug associated with it. They can produce millions of seemingly indestructible seedlings, filling gutters and flower beds with fast growing unwanted babies.

When given a choice, I will always encourage people to plant the slower growing hard maples over the fast growing soft maples. In the long run, you will have a better quality plant. 

Jeff Burbrink is extension educator at Purdue Extension Elkhart County. He can be reached at 574-533-0554 or jburbrink@purdue.edu.

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