How to Identify Maple Tree Varieties

Jessica Gore
Reviewed by Master Gardener Stephanie Suesan Smith, Ph.D.
maple leaves

With over a hundred species and nearly as many subspecies, maple tree identification can be tricky. Add in the countless cultivars available and differing growth habit due to site conditions, and the task can seem downright impossible. Fortunately, it is not as hard as you might think. Simply focus on a few key features to narrow down your options, and identifying what sort of maple tree you have is no problem at all.

Basic Maple Tree Identification

Of the many species of maple existing worldwide, only about 13 are native to North America. Some non-native species, such as the Japanese maple, are cultivated as ornamentals. While a dizzying array of varieties are usually available at your local nursery, most come from a few basic stock species. These are:

Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharun)

sugar maple leaf
Sugar Maple Trunk
Sugar Maple tree

Red Maple (Acer Rubrum)

red maple bark

Silver Maple (Acer Saccharinum)

Silver Maple Leaf
Silver Maple Trunk
Silver Maple tree

Box Elder (Acer Negundo)

Box Elder Leaf
Box Elder Trunk
Box Elder tree

Norway Maple (Acer Platanoides)

Norway maple leaves
Norway Maple Trunk
Norway maple tree

Japanese Maple (Acer Palmatum)

Japanese maple branch with leaves
Japanese maple trunk
Japanese maple tree

Paperbark Maple (Acer Griseum)

Paperbark leaf
Paperbark maple trunk
Paperbark maple tree

To determine which of these species is growing in your yard or sitting in a nursery waiting for you to take it home, think like a botanist. The characteristics most likely to attract your attention, such as size or leaf color, are not always reliable indicators of species. While some species are known for outstanding autumn foliage, leaf color often varies from year to year. Similarly, external factors such as soil quality and sun exposure can influence the growth habits of your maple. Instead, look at reliable indicators for accurate maple tree identification like leaf shape and bark.

Leaf Shape

You may already be familiar with the distinctive leaf shape associated with most members of the genus Acer. Most maple species have simple, as opposed to compound, leaves with multiple lobes, the veins of which originate from a single, roughly central point on the leaf. Looking more closely at the details of the leaf will give you a better idea what sort of maple you have:

  • Compound leaves: While the majority of maple species have simple leaves, two notable exceptions, the box elder and the paperbark maple, have compound leaves, with three to five leaflets per leaf stock. You will be able to easily distinguish between these two species by looking at the bark, detailed below.
  • Very deeply-lobed leaves: The Japanese maple is known for very distinct lobing of the leaves, so much so that they almost appear to be compound leaves. However, you will note all lobes of this leaf still originate from a single point on the leaf stock and have no stems of their own. There is some variation between cultivars of this tree, but most possess this feature to a greater or lesser degree.
  • Large, 5-lobed leaf: Both the sugar maple and the Norway maple have this characteristic, with the sugar maple leaf having a few large teeth and rounded spaces between the lobes. The easiest way to tell these species apart using the leaves is to break a leaf off the twig. A leaf from a Norway maple will yield a milky sap from the end of the leaf, while the sugar maple will not.
  • Fuzzy: If your maple tree has a soft white coating on the underside of the leaf, it is almost certainly a silver maple.
  • Roughly toothed: The red maple has a slightly smaller leaf than most other species, with its most distinctive feature being a rough, saw-like edge. If the leaf margin, or edge, of your maple's leaves appear serrated, it is probably a red maple.

In most cases, the leaves will be enough to help you determine what kind of maple you have. If you are in doubt, look at the bark of the tree to make a positive identification.

Distinctive Bark

If you are trying to identify a maple tree during winter, the leaves can be a less reliable feature. While at first you may think all bark looks the same, there are a few key traits associated with certain species that can aid in maple identification:

  • Smooth, red and papery: The paperbark maple has been relatively uncommon until quite recently, but is gaining momentum as more people become familiar with this Chinese import. A compound leaf combined with striking, papery bark means you probably have one of these beauties.
  • Wide, irregular strips: The sugar maple has dark grayish-brown bark with wide, vertical strips that curl outward at the edges.
  • Narrow, scaly ridges: Norway maple, box elder and red maple share this feature. Red maple's bark is normally dark brown, whereas box elder and Norway maple bark is more grayish.
  • Grayish, scaly, and flaky: Most likely a silver maple. Look to leaves for a positive identification.

Hybrid Identification

When you have a naturally-occurring maple species, identification is fairly straightforward. When you are dealing with hybrid cultivars, determining what kind of tree you have can be more difficult. For example, the autumn blaze maple tree is a hybrid of a red maple and a silver maple, and will have characteristics of each parent. Looking at the leaf and bark will usually give you a good indication of at least part of the parent stock, from which you can consult other resources for more precise plant identification.

Enjoy Your Maple Tree

Accurate maple tree identification can sometimes be an issue if you are concerned about the health and care of your tree, but most maples normally are subject to similar pests and diseases, and most require similar care. Whatever kind of maple you have, you can be sure you have a beautiful, sturdy tree that will give you years of enjoyment as a shade tree, ornamental, or conversation piece.

How to Identify Maple Tree Varieties