Red maples (Acer rubrum) blaze with bright color in an autumn display that earns them favor across the United States. But autumn isn't the only time of year red maples put on a show. In Central Florida, red maples burst into bloom in the earliest days of February with brilliant red flowers that signal spring is near. People aren't the only ones anticipating the arrival of red maple's late-winter flowers.
In a normal year in Central Florida, red maples begin flowering during the first two weeks of February. In more southern regions of the state, red maple flowers appear as early as December and January. Florida's honey bee population and their handlers eagerly await the arrival. The showy, vivid red flowers provide one of their earliest nectar and pollen sources each year. Attractive red, two-winged fruit -- formally known as samaras, and informally known by children and adults as "whirligigs" -- soon replace the fiery flowers, as reddish-tinged foliage begins to emerge. In Central Florida, red maple leaf buds normally begin to break around the end of the first week in March.
Fast-growing and strong, red maples reach a height of 60 to 75 feet with a width roughly half that size. In Central Florida and farther south, red maples often fail to reach that height unless grown in areas with consistently wet soils or plentiful water nearby. In addition to spring's ornamental display, red maples demonstrate colorful fall foliage that is not restricted to red. Autumn colors range from golden yellow to orange with abundant red and russet tones, often all on a single tree. Depending on the region and year, the intensity of leaf color can vary significantly, but red maples in Central Florida consistently lead the way each fall with their parade of color lasting several weeks.
Hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 4 through 9, native red maple populations can be found in every one of the 48 contiguous U.S. states. In Central Florida, which is USDA zone 9, red maples naturally occur only in wet areas, a characteristic that gives rise to the common name swamp maple. Rarely are the trees found in the predominantly upland sands where more drought-tolerant native Florida trees make their home.
Consistent, plentiful soil moisture translates to an ideal growing environment for red maples. Very adaptable, the trees perform well in full sun, partial sun or partial shade and in acidic soils of clay, sand or loam. They can withstand extended flooding and moderate drought but have low salt tolerance and grow poorly in alkaline soils. In home landscapes and street plantings, Central Florida's dry season necessitates irrigation for red maple trees from October until annual rains return in June.
- Richard C. Beeson, Jr., PhD; Associate Professor of Environmental Horticulture; University of Florida IFAS Mid-Florida Research & Education Center: Apopka, FL
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Acer Rubrum: Red Maple
- Fisher Honey Bees: Florida Nectar Plants, Bushes and Trees
- University of Florida IFAS Extension Mid-Florida Research & Education Center: Water Use of Landscape Trees
- Photo Credit Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images