Descriptions of trees arranged by scientific name

The Firs: genus Abies
The only native fir in the area is the Balsam Fir, Abies balsamea. It is not common to the White Pine/Red Oak woods that dominate eastern Mass., but it is seen in some locations.
The Maples: genus Acer
The maples belong to the genus Acer. Acer is characterized by palmately lobed opposite leaves, and winged fruits called samaras. The leaves are distinctive among adult trees (some small Virburnum have opposite palmate leaves), and the fruits are absolutely unique. Most Acer grow to be large trees. The native Acer rubrum and Acer saccharinum are among the first trees to bloom and fruit. The identification of species of Acer, by fruit and leaf together, is straightforward. An introduced maple, A. platanoides, is a major common street and lawn tree, and can be found growing as an escape. Acer saccharum , the sugar maple, does not really grow wild in eastern Massachusetts, but is widely planted. Although the Sugar Maple is the best known of the maples, you will see far more of the other species. A. saccharum and A. platanoides cast very dense shade, and their thin leaves mat down wetly in the autumn, doing a job on lawns. This contrasts with oaks which are easier on grass because they cast thinner shade, and their leathery leaves form a crunchier, bouncier, airier layer on the ground.

Scientific Name: Acer negundo (AY·sir nuh·GUN·doe)
Common Name: Box elder
Family: Sapindaceae (sap·in·DAY·see·ee)
Distinctive Characteristics: Leaves, fruits
Distribution: Not common in area.
Habitat: Weed tree found near railroad tracks, waste areas.
Leaves: Opposite, pinnately compound with 3-7 leaflets. Leaflets with coarse, irregular teeth.
Similar trees Ashes have much more regular leaves, no other maple in area has compound leaves. Other trees' (except Ash's) pinnate leaves are alternate.
Twigs: Greenish.
Acer palmatum This is a commonly planted, small, decorative, Japanese maple, often with purple or even blood red leaves. The shape of the leaves is quite distinctive. Look for it only in cultivation, particularly on lawns.

Scientific Name: Acer platanoides (AY·sir plat·uh·no·EYE·deez) "planetree-like maple"
Common Name: Norway Maple.
Family: Sapindaceae (sap·in·DAY·see·ee)
Bark: Diamond-ridge pattern of mature bark is like that of an Ash, and distinctive among maples. Young bark is smoother, not necessarily very different from a Red Maple's.
Buds: Imbricate scales, inner ones bearing coarse brown hairs (evident as bud opens).
Distinctive Characteristics: Fruit, mature bark (but cf. Ash!), flowers, white sap when present (among maples).
Distribution: European tree, widely cultivated. Very common as an escape. Perhaps the most common city tree. No longer a trendy tree among landscapers, so look twice at what appears to be a young, planted Norway Maple.
Flowers: Convex corymb, 2 to 4 inches across. Not pendent. Five greenish yellow petals alternating with five greener sepals, both 5 mm long. Flower 12 mm across, pedicels 1 to 3 cm. Eight stamens borne on disk, 3 mm across. Style longer than stamens, with twin outcurved stigmas. This tree flowers abundantly, and showily, in April. No other maple has an inflorescence of this shape, or this showy. Sticky, white sap.
Fruit: Flattened winged schizocarp. The portion of fruit surrounding seed is also flattened, unlike that of other maples. With wings almost in line with each other, entire fruit is 3 to 4 inches wide. Green at first, drying to medium brown. The largest maple fruit.
Habit: Medium to almost large tree, heavier branches than many sugar maples. Like sugar maple, and unlike Ashes, casts dense shade. Fast growing.
Habitat: Planted on streets, in yards. Winged fruits, produced copiously, allow it to spread to hedges, vacant lots, edges of woods. Any ill-kept privet hedge near a Norway Maple will be infested with 1 and 2 foot tall Norway Maples. You can put money on it!
Leaves: Opposite, palmately lobed, large for a maple (5 to 7" across). Petiole, as long as leaf's midvein, usually 4 or 5". White sap when plucked, quite noticeable when young. Usually five main lobes. Glabrous above and below, except for tufts in axils of veins. A purple-leaved variety is commonly planted. Distinguish this from Purple Beech (trivial) and A. palmatum (color redder, leaf shape very different, often seven lobes, small tree.)
Similar trees Bark is like that of White Ash. Leaves resemble those of Sugar Maple, but bark, flowers and fruit will distinguish them.
Sprouts: Ubiquitous about Norway maples in the spring. Cotyledons are strap-shaped, three to four cm long and 8 mm wide, with rounded tips.
Scientific Name: Acer pseudoplatanus (AY-sir pseudo-PLAT-uh-nuss) "false-planetree maple".
Common Name: Sycamore Maple, Sycamore (in British Isles).
Bark: Splotchy scales, with orangey-brown showing beneath. Dull grey.
Distinctive Characteristics:
Distribution: European native, present here in cultivation, or as an escape. Not particularly common, but present.
Flowers: In hanging, cylindrical inflorescence.
Habitat: Planted, or waste-places.
Leaves: Opposite, palmately-lobed, with quilted texture. Blade 12 cm. long or so, petiole 12 cm., normally slightly longer than blade.
Similar trees
Scientific Name: Acer rubrum (AY·sir RUBE·rum) "red maple"
Common Name: Red Maple, Swamp Maple.
Family: Sapindaceae (sap·in·DAY·see·ee)
Bark: Smooth and grey when young. Rough, darker, with vertical ridges on older trunks. Can be confused with Sugar Maple, which has more pronounced ridges, and less of a scaly look.
Buds: Red.
Distinctive Characteristics: Fruit, buds, flowers. When leaves turn dark red (which isn't always), the only tree that shares this color is Nyssa sylvatica.
Distribution: Common native tree, and commonly planted.
Flowers: Red, bloom very briefly in earliest April.
Fruit: A winged schizocarp, with almost parallel wings, rounded at their bases where the seed is hidden. Red when young, tinged red when mature. Appear in early April, fallen by mid May.
Habitat: Typical of swamps and other wet places, but also grows in dry woods. Planted on streets and lawns.
Leaves: Opposite, with three or five major palmate lobes. Serrate (as are those of Silver Maple and unlike those of Sugar and Norway maples). Red maples have strong autumn color -- usually yellow or red, as does the Sugar Maple. The Norway Maple and Silver Maple are not as spectacular.
Similar trees In winter, resembles Sugar Maple. Young Red Maples resemble Silver Maples, and can share their habitat. The red of the buds, flowers and fruits distinguish it, along with its leaves (shallower sinuses than Silver Maple, clearly serrrate margins. unlike Sugar Maple).

Scientific Name: Acer saccharinum
Common Name: Silver Maple.
Family: Sapindaceae (sap·in·DAY·see·ee)
Bark: Elongated thinnish scales, loose at top and bottom. Medium grey. Young bark grey and smooth like Red Maple's.
Distinctive Characteristics: Bark. Leaves. Among maples, it shape.
Distribution: Native to this area, and fairly common.
Flowers: First maple to bloom. Flowers are pendant, and yellow.
Habit: Sometimes weeps. Large, fast-growing tree, with big diagonally-spreading limbs. A large tree, the only maple with typically massive branches.
Habitat: Near water, particularly river banks. In actual swamps, elms and Red Maple are more likely. Was once widely planted, but because of the fragility of its twigs and large branches is no longer favored by landscapers and homeowners. Look for it in cultivation in parks, and on lawns and roadsides in older neighborhoods.
Leaves: Opposite, palmately lobed, serrate, glaucous beneath, pale green. Autumn color a pale yellow, often with green remaining.
Similar trees Young Silver Maples look like Red Maples.
Twigs: Often pendant.
Scientific name: Acer saccharum (AY·sir SACK·uh·rum) "sugar maple".
Common name: sugar maple, rock maple, black maple.
Family: Sapindaceae (sap·in·DAY·see·ee)
Bark: Like Red Maple's when young. Old bark has strong vertical ridges, whose edges lift free of the trunk.
Distinctive Characteristics:
Distribution: Not really native to eastern Massachusetts, where the soil is dry and acidic. Widely planted on roadsides and lawns. Outside of older, wealthier neighborhoods and parks, not a city tree. The best known of the maples, but much less common than that would make you think.
Habit: Trunk usually breaks up into an oval mass of branches, broader at the base. This shape is distinctive in winter.
Habitat: Cool, mature woods or in cultivation. Does not withstand sunny, dry, polluted city conditions well. In the wild, associated with hemlock, beech, red oak and yellow birch. The common association of eastern Massachusetts is Red Oak/White Oak (formerly including American Chestnut), which prevails on soils too acidic for the Sugar Maple.
Leaves: Opposite, with five large palmate lobes, ending in attenuate tips. Not serrate. The autumn color is bright yellow, orange, or scarlet.
Similar trees Red maple has similar fall colors, and the barks are not too different. Red Maples are sometimes planted on busy city streets, and will grow in swamps and dry oak woods, all very unlikely places to find a Sugar Maple. Close up, the Red Maple's serrate leaf, often with only three major lobes, is quite different. Norway Maple has similar, but usually larger, leaves. Use fruits and flowers to differentiate. Norway Maples won't be found near wild Sugar Maples.

Copyright © 1989, 1997, 2014 Brian Laurence Hughes
Last modified: 2014 Mar 09 at 08:44 EDT

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