“Which maple should I plant?” is a question I routinely encounter. My response is, “None!”
Maples aren’t bad trees. They are great trees. Drive down most streets, and you will see a maple in everyone’s yard. Talk to a landscaper about their inventory and what they sell more than any other species are maples. We love maple trees.
The characteristics of red maple, sugar maple or any of the various hybrids exemplify good fall color, decent growth rate, interesting bark and ease of propagation. Their performance puts maple trees in the league of historically top-rated trees, like American elm, green and white ash, and American chestnut.
My use of the term “historically” has two connotations. The first indicates our historic use of the three aforementioned tree species in the U.S. The second connotation refers to the fact that the American chestnut, elm and soon-to-follow ash are history. Like the maple that follows in their trend, ash, chestnut and elm were all heavily planted. One by one, each tree species succumbed to a non-native, invasive pest. Today, our communities are grappling with the effects of emerald ash borer and the vast emptiness left in our urban canopies. What’s being planted in the wake of millions of lost ash trees? You guessed it — maples.
Currently, there is a pest called the Asian long-horned beetle that has the potential to completely wipe out North America’s maple tree population. The Asian long-horned beetle has popped up in the U.S. already, and fortunately, our methods for controlling this pest have been successful. But things change, pests adapt and new threats emerge.
What can we do to prevent repeating our mistakes of monoculture urban forests? Don’t plant them. With the loss of our ash trees, American cities have a great opportunity to plant diverse species of trees. If any of your neighbors have a maple tree, plant something else. Go even farther and take a walk around your neighborhood and identify what tree species may be lacking and seek those out.
When I say to avoid planting maples, most people ask, “Well, what are your favorite trees?” Before I give you my list of trees, you need to know, this is a tricky question to ask of a horticulture educator. It’s like asking me why my dog is my favorite dog. She chews on my kids’ toys, ruined my front door, destroyed our windows, and steals my children’s food, but I still love her and wouldn’t trade her … most days. Despite all those negatives, my dog’s good qualities still outshine the stuffed animal innards scattered across the living room floor this morning.
My top 10 list of trees:
- Swamp white oak
- Bur oak
- Black gum
- Tulip poplar
- Sweetgum (Yes, sweetgum haters, you read that correctly. See the paragraph about my dog.)
- Bald cypress
- Kentucky coffeetree
- American beech
- White oak
It is not my aim to make readers anti-maple, but instead pro-diversity regarding our urban canopies.
Doing a neighborhood tree survey and need help identifying a tree? Contact your local Illinois Extension office for resources in tree identification.