Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum)

River Maple, Silverleaf Maple, Silver Maple, Swamp Maple, Water Maple, White Maple

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) is one of the most common deciduous trees in the United States and southeast Canada. It is a 15 to 25 m tall, fast-growing, sun-loving tree. Its leaves have deeper angular notches between the five lobes than many other maple species. Silver maple is often found along waterways and wetlands, earning it an alternative name ‘Water maple’.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Acer saccharinum, commonly known as silver maple, creek maple, silverleaf maple, soft maple, large maple, water maple, swamp maple, or white maple, is a species of maple native to the eastern and central United States and southeastern Canada. It is one of the most common trees in the United States.

Although the silver maple’s Latin name is similar, it should not be confused with Acer saccharum, the sugar maple. Some of the common names are also applied to other maples, especially Acer rubrum.

The silver maple tree is a relatively fast-growing deciduous tree, commonly reaching a height of 15–25 m (49–82 ft), exceptionally 35 m (115 ft). Its spread will generally be 11–15 m (36–49 ft) wide. A 10-year-old sapling will stand about 8 m (26 ft) tall. It is often found along waterways and in wetlands, leading to the colloquial name “water maple”. It is a highly adaptable tree, although it has higher sunlight requirements than other maple trees. The leaves are simple and palmately veined, 8–16 cm (3+1⁄4–6+1⁄4 in) long and 6–12 cm (2+1⁄4–4+3⁄4 in) broad, with deep angular notches between the five lobes. The 5–12 cm (2–4+3⁄4 in) long, slender stalks of the leaves mean that even a light breeze can produce a striking effect as the downy silver undersides of the leaves are exposed. The autumn color is less pronounced than in many maples, generally ending up a pale yellow, although some specimens can produce a more brilliant yellow and even orange and red colorations. The tree has a tendency to color and drop its leaves slightly earlier in autumn than other maples.

The flowers are in dense clusters, produced before the leaves in early spring, with the seeds maturing in early summer. The fruit is a schizocarp of two single-seeded, winged samaras. The wing of each samara is about 3–5 cm (1+1⁄4–2 in) long. The fruit of this species is the largest among the maples native to its range. Although the wings provide for some transport by air, the fruit are heavy and are also transported by water. Silver maple and its close cousin red maple are the only Acer species which produce their fruit crop in spring instead of fall. The seeds of both trees have no epigeal dormancy and will germinate immediately. Seed production begins at 11 years of age and large crops are produced most years. Like most maples, silver maple can be variably dioecious (separate male or female trees) or monoecious (male and female flowers on the same tree) but dioecious trees are far more common. They can also change sex from year to year.

On mature trunks, the bark is gray and shaggy. On branches and young trunks, the bark is smooth and silvery gray.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

Planting your silver maple in an area that gets plenty of sunlight will ensure you it has the best conditions to stay healthy and produce the lovely vibrant green foliage for which it’s known. It can tolerate partial shade but will not thrive in full shade at all. Aim to give your tree at least six hours of light daily, either direct or indirect.

Temperature and Humidity

Silver maple adapts to a wide range of climates and can handle humid conditions. However, silver maples prefer the eastern seaboard with its cool falls and springs, cold winters, and wet warm summers.

Watering

If grown in the proper conditions and region, your silver maple should not require supplemental watering once it is established. Until then, water your young tree weekly for the first two seasons until it’s established. Follow the rule of 2 to 3 gallons of water per caliper inch of trunk diameter. After the second year, let nature handle the watering needs.

Soil

The silver maple does not have many specific requirements for soil. It is a forest native, so it prefers well-drained soil that is rich in humus and slightly acidic. Its main root will extend deep into the soil, but its tiny fibrous roots will be concentrated near the soil surface, so accumulated water in the soil tends to cause root rot.

Fertilizing

Skip fertilizing a silver maple. Faster growth will produce weaker wood, and they already grow at a blistering rate without any fertilizer. You can test your soil and fertilize if there is a deficiency, but otherwise the tree will be happy with simple organic fertilizers like mulch.

Planting Instructions

Pruning

Pruning is mainly used to enhance internal ventilation, improve shoot formation, promote growth, and for shaping. The common approach to pruning is to remove any old or weak branches, remove any branches that disrupt the shape of the tree, and remove any branches that cross other branches. Pruning is used to control the plant according to the required height and shape. Generally, this follows the “Y-type” pruning method.

It is possible to prune a silver maple throughout the year, but the coldest winter months should be avoided to prevent damage to the plant. Major pruning to shape a maple can be performed following defoliation in the fall, or prior to leaf growth in the spring. It is recommended to prune in the fall because withered and full buds can be easily distinguished.

According to the shaping plan, you can prune any withered buds and keep the full ones, thus making your tree healthier. For pruning in the summer, diseased, weak, or dead branches can be removed, mainly to enhance the tree’s ventilation.

If grown as a potted plant, the roots can easily occupy the entire flowerpot due to the limited space. This can make a silver maple prone to aging if an old flowerpot is not changed. It is recommended that old roots are pruned during the dormancy period, that is, cut off any old, coarse, diseased, and weak roots.

Propagation

You can propagate silver maple from seed but this method is unreliable. It’s easiest to propagate silver maples through the volunteer method or with cuttings.

You will find at least a dozen volunteer seedlings around your landscape from scattered samaras every year. The seeds mature in late spring and may well sprout on their own. Simply dig the seedlings and transplant them to the desired location (silver maples transplant well). Or, dig them up and place the seedlings in a pot large enough for a good root system to develop, filled with peat, sand, vermiculite, perlite, or any good soilless mix, and watch your volunteer silver maple grow.

To propagate with cuttings:

  • Choose a branch with new growth in the mid-summer or mid-fall and using a sterilized, sharp knife, cut a shoot that’s 4 to 6 inches long. Take off the leaves along the lower third of the cutting.
  • Fill a pot with potting soil and poke a hole into this soil.
  • Dip the bottom of the cutting in rooting hormone, then insert the end into the hole in the soil.
  • Water the potting soil and keep the pot in indirect sunlight.
  • Keep the potting soil moist until the cutting roots. This is most easily achieved if you create a plastic tent over the cutting. For a “tent pole,” insert a small stake into the potting soil. For a “canvas,” drape a clear plastic bag over the stake. Lift the bag to water.
  • Once the cutting has rooted, remove the bag but continue to keep the soil evenly moist.
  • Transplant the rooted cutting outdoors next spring after all danger of frost has passed.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Numerous insects bother the silver maple but none are serious enough to cause the tree problems if it is healthy. Treat most pests with a chemical management solution. Gall mites may appear on the tree if there are growths or galls on the leaves. These pests do not damage the tree and are not long-lasting, so no treatment is necessary.

Several diseases also attack silver maples but most are not very serious. Verticillium wilt, however, can cause some issues and lead to tree death. The symptoms include wilting, dead branches, and discolored sapwood that appears dark green. Treatment for lightly infected trees involves pruning dead and infected wood. Seriously infected trees cannot be saved.

Common Problems 

Silver maple can be a problematic tree to grow. Its roots and its seedlings can cause headaches.

Shallow Roots

Over time, a dense network of exposed roots may form. These roots can damage mower blades. Avoid growing silver maple as a lawn tree. Instead, grow it at the edge of your property in a woodland garden that receives some sun.

Unwanted Seedlings

Your silver maple may produce unwanted seedlings that you end up removing. To avoid this issue, grow the ‘Silver Queen’ cultivar. Failing that, stay ahead of the problem by pulling up seedlings whenever you see them.

III. Uses and Benefits 

  • Ornamental uses

Silver maple is an excellent landscaping tree for streets and parks, but it is also a popular choice for private yards and gardens. It is prized for its quick growth and ability to provide shade much earlier than most other trees, as well as for its small, attractive blooms and green and silvery leaves. Good companions to plant beneath this tree include Columbines, Wintergreen, and St. John’s wort.

  • Other uses

Wildlife uses the silver maple in various ways. In many parts of the eastern U.S., the large rounded buds are one of the primary food sources for squirrels during the spring, after many acorns and nuts have sprouted and the squirrels’ food is scarce. The seeds are also a food source for chipmunks and birds. The bark can be eaten by beaver and deer. The trunks tend to produce cavities, which can shelter squirrels, raccoons, opossums, owls and woodpeckers, and are frequented by carpenter ants. Additionally, the leaves serve as a source of food for species of Lepidoptera, such as the rosy maple moth (Dryocampa rubicunda).

The wood can be used as pulp for making paper. Lumber from the tree is used in furniture, cabinets, flooring, musical instruments, crates, and tool handles, because it is light and easily worked. Because of the silver maple’s fast growth, it is being researched as a potential source of biofuels. Silver maple produces a sweet sap but it is generally not used by commercial sugarmakers because its sugar content is lower than in other maple species.

Native Americans used the sap of wild trees to make sugar, as medicine, and in bread. They used the wood to make baskets and furniture. An infusion of bark removed from the south side of the tree is used by the Mohegan as cough medicine. The Cherokee take an infusion of the bark to treat cramps, menstrual pains, dysentery, and hives. They boil the inner bark and use it with water as a wash for sore eyes. They take a hot infusion of the bark to treat measles. They use the tree to make baskets, for lumber, building material, and for carving.

Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) Details

Common name River Maple, Silverleaf Maple, Silver Maple, Swamp Maple, Water Maple, White Maple
Botanical name Acer saccharinum
Plant type Native Plant
Hardiness zone 3a, 3b, 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b, 9a, 9b
Growth rate Fast
Harvest time Spring
Height 50 ft. 0 in. - 80 ft. 0 in.
Width 50 ft. 0 in. - 80 ft. 0 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Brown/Copper