Hello Fellow Readers, Silver Maple, once a Native American treasure, has lost favor in the horticultural industry. Still, one of the marvels of Cape May, NJ, is the abundance of Silver Maple trees that shimmer along roadsides.
Silver Maple, Acer saccharinum, is native to the eastern US and Canada and is often found near water. Hence they’ve acquired other common names such as Soft Maple, Swamp Maple, or White Maple. But they’re adaptable to drier areas and require more sunlight than other maples.
I remember playing with Silver Maple leaves as a kid. The silvery under-leaf reminded me of shiny silver dollars. I’d pick them for currency and play shop. The top part of the leaf is green, but when the wind blows, the trees seem to sparkle. The bark is silver in color, too, until the tree grows older, when it darkens to grey and becomes shaggy.
It occurs to me that I haven’t seen Silver Maple in the trades and wonder why. It turns out Silver Maple became popular after World War II for their fast growth offering quick shade. They were used as street trees in the suburbs and cities as a substitute for the American Elm impacted by blight. Today Silver Maple is far less favored. In fact, they are banned as a street tree in some towns because their wood is brittle and need to be pruned to maintain an attractive form. They’re also considered messy, making lots of babies from their pairs of winged seeds that are over 3 inches long. The autumn color is not a big feature either, typically turning pale yellow and dropping earlier than other maples.
Silver Maple and Red Maple (Acer rubrum) are the only maples that produce seeds in spring instead of fall and are immediately able to germinate. Their close kinship allows them to hybridize in nature and has become a staple in the trades. The hybrid is known as the Freeman maple (Acer x freemanii), which has the features of fast growth with less brittle wood, less invasive roots, and bright red fall color. Cultivars are sometimes listed for sale under Acer rubrum instead of Acer x freemanii which can be confusing. ‘Jeffersred’, sold under the trade name of ‘Autumn Blaze’, is one of my favorites, turning into a blaze of orange-red fall color that lasts longer than most.
Native Americans used Silver Maple to make sugar, baskets, and furniture, and they made cough medicine from the bark. It turns out Cape May is a favored spot to find Native American artifacts. Curt, my better half, came upon an arrowhead washed up amongst the seaweed on Sunset Beach. There’s something sacred about touching something made by the hands of someone over 2,000 years ago.
Column Updated 8/16/23