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Red maple grows up to 20 m tall, usually with a narrow compact crown, and may occur singly or in a clump of stems that resprouted from a single stump after cutting or fire. Young bark is smooth, thin, and gray; older trees develop furrowed bark with scaly or even shaggy ridges. Leaves are deciduous, opposite, with blades 6-10 cm long and usually about as wide, with 3 to 5 shallow short-pointed and serrate or toothed lobes. Flowers are pink to red, in fascicles (clusters) or drooping racemes. Individual trees are monoecious (male and female flowers on separated trees) or bisexual (male and female flowers on the same tree, or segregated by branches within the tree—technically polygamo-dioecious). Fruits are paired samaras (winged nutlets) 2-2.5 cm long, clustered on long stalks (Wikipedia 2011).
Red maple is one of the most widely distributed trees in eastern North America (see distribution map). It tolerates a wide variety of soil types and site conditions, ranging from swamps and poorly drained soils to drier uplands, savannas, sandy dunes, and barrens (Barnes and Wagner 2004, Burns and Honkala 1990, Michigan Flora Online 2011). It is widely planted as a shade tree and in parks, with more than 50 cultivars that vary in leaf shape, fall color, and tree form (Van Geldrin et al. 2010). It has various timber uses, can yield maple syrup (but less than sugar maple), and was used by Native Americans and pioneers for medicinal and other purposes (see uses).
Red maple has increased dramatically in abundance and distribution since the early 1800s, when early settlement records suggest that it was restricted to swampy sites. Fire suppression has allowed it to gain a competitive advantage and replace oaks in drier upland forests (Abrams 1998). It is a “supergeneralist” that can act as a pioneer species, quickly colonizing disturbed and cut-over sites, but capable of dominating later in succession (Abrams 1998). It is browsed less by deer and defoliated less by gypsy moths than oak species; the differential damage may indirectly benefit the red maple (Abrams 1998, Jedlicka et al. 2004). Its increased abundance may also be linked to the decline of Ulmus americana (American elm) from Dutch elm disease, and of Castanea dentata (American chestnut) from blight. By 2002, red maple was one of the 10 most abundant tree species in U.S. forests (FIA 2011). Its distribution has been further increased due to frequent naturalization from horticultural plantings.
Red maple leaves, twig, bark, and/or fruits are a food source for numerous mammals, birds, and insects. However, red maple leaves are extremely toxic to horses (Wikipedia 2011).