Those marvelous maples


Arbor Day in Texas is the first Friday in November, and every Texas gardener knows that fall is the second best time for planting a tree (the best time being 20 years ago). That being said, what tree should you plant? Consider a maple, a tree that can last a lifetime or more.

I have to admit that before I moved to East Texas, I would never have recommended a maple tree. I lived in the DFW area, and the only large maples I saw were silver maples, a fast-growing tree with brittle wood that often broke in storms. The nursery trade had just begun to bring in maples from China, but what really changed my mind about these trees was my move to the acid soils of East Texas.

There are many varieties of maples for East Texas. The native red maple (Acer rubrum) is considered a fast-growing, medium-sized shade tree that generally grows 40-60 feet in the landscape. The tree has a rounded crown and distinctive silvery bark that is smooth on young trees but rough, almost shaggy as the tree ages. Female red maples will have red fruit (samaras) in early spring, while male trees will have small reddish flowers. Many red maples will have brilliant red fall foliage, but on some trees the fall color tends toward yellow. Red maples are tolerant of moist soils, so they may find a niche in your yard. Look for native trees or named varieties at local nurseries.

Less common native maples for East Texas include southern sugar maple (Acer floridanum) and chalk maple, also called whitebark maple (Acer leucoderme). These relatives of the northern sugar maples (from which we get maple syrup) are smaller than red maples – usually about 25 feet tall. The Southern sugar maple has beautiful yellow fall color, while the chalk maple has brilliant yellow-orange to crimson fall colors. The chalk maple prefers well-drained soil, and both can be grown as understory trees. These native trees may be more difficult to find; contact nurseries that specialize in native plants.

Some maples that are imported from Asia are also right at home in East Texas. One that should be represented in every shade garden is the Japanese maple (Acer palmatum). A small tree (to 20 feet tall), Japanese maples are native to the mountains of Japan, and have been developed for centuries for varied colors and forms. Their form can be upright or weeping; some have lacy foliage; some have variegated leaves; some have colorful bark. In East Texas they are suitable for in-ground or container plantings – I have gophers so I plant mine in containers. The trees will tolerate some morning sun or full shade; the green-leafed varieties are more tolerant of sun, while those with variegated leaves prefer full shade. Japanese maples need consistent watering and good drainage, so take this into consideration when you’re planting, especially in a container. Most East Texas nurseries carry several varieties of Japanese maples. The most common variety in local nurseries is ‘Bloodgood’, an upright variety with fantastic spring and fall color, and red leaves throughout the summer.

My favorite street trees are Shantung maples (Acer truncatum), which are native to China, Japan, and Korea. This small tree (25 feet or so) has been designated a Texas Superstar, meaning that it has performed well in Texas. I like everything about this tree – its smaller form, its fall color, its interesting bark. The glossy leaves are a bit bronze/red when they emerge, and mature to a deep green. Fall color ranges from golden apricot to red with a hint of purple. The bark on a mature tree has vertical ridges and furrows for winter interest. As I said – what’s not to like? I guess it’s the availability, or lack thereof. There’s a nursery in Ft. Worth that specializes Shantung maples (and Japanese maples as well), and we sometimes have them at the plant sales at the Quitman Arboretum. If you see one at a nursery, don’t pass it by.

A similar-sized tree (and just as hard-to-find) is the Trident maple (Acer buergerianum). This native of China and Japan is popular with Bonsai enthusiasts, but it’s also a fine specimen for your East Texas garden. Its leaves have three lobes and are a rich dark green in color. It is very tolerant of the salt, wind, drought, and air pollution, and is a great urban tree. The tree tends to be multi-branched rather than single-trunked, so you may need to prune out some competing trunks when the tree is young. We have a very nice specimen at the Quitman Arboretum that was planted in memory of Bart Bartlett, an extraordinary teacher, gardener, landscape designer, and friend.

Many maples have glorious fall color. Color is not necessarily consistent across trees of the same species I have two shantung maples planted within view of each other, and their fall colors are widely different - golden-orange and deep red leaves. If fall color is your driving force for adding a maple to your landscape, buy your tree in the fall when the leaves have turned at the nursery. Also remember that the site – especially the amount of sun the tree gets - and the weather will affect how much and how long your tree will display fall color in any given year.

Some maples can grow surface roots, especially when planted in moist soils. These dense roots can make mowing difficult. You might avoid planting the larger maples in your lawn area, but rather relegate these handsome trees to a woodland or mulched garden area. Ask your nursery professional for guidance when you’re buying your maple tree. Containerized Japanese maples can be planted anywhere where they are protected from the hot Texas sun.

Find your tree at a local nursery, then follow these planting instructions: dig a wide hole no deeper than the tree’s depth in the pot; rough up the sides of the hole with your shovel; take the tree out of the pot and loosen the tree’s root ball; position the tree in the hole at the same depth as it was in the container; and backfill around the tree with the native soil. Water well to give the tree a head start – all that’s needed after that is consistent watering and some occasional fertilizer. Trees, like fine wine, get better with time, in your East Texas gardens.

The Quitman Arboretum and Botanical Gardens is now offering tree memorials in the gardens. To find out more about this new program, contact the Arboretum at (430) 235-5461.

Lin Grado is the garden manager at the Quitman Arboretum and Botanical Gardens. Email her at with your gardening questions or suggestions for future columns. Lin is also available to answer your gardening questions at the Quitman Arboretum each Wednesday from 9 a.m. till noon.