How to Identify Sugar Maple

Learning how to identify sugar maple is one of the most crucial skills for any outdoor enthusiast or woodlot owner. Not only is it an incredibly valuable species for hardwood lumber production and maple sugaring, but its propensity to grow on nice, high-productivity sites can give valuable insights into the drainage and quality of soil. It is also has some of the most beautiful fall foliage in the northern forest, so if you find an area with a lot of sugar maple, it could be worth it to return in the fall.

Luckily, sugar maple, also known by its scientific name Acer saccharum, has several distinct attributes that are crucial for identification. Once you learn them, you’ll be able to identify any sugar maple any time of the year, with or without leaves. The key attributes are leaves/foliage, bark, and buds.

Identifying Sugar Maple by the Leaves

While the maple leaf is iconic, it can be tricky to know the difference between sugar maple leaves and other maples. Sugar maples have 5 distinct sections (called “lobes”) and the leaves are symmetrical

Sugar maple leaves have five lobes.
The five distinct lobes of a sugar maple leaf.

Moreover, the margins of the leaf will be smooth, unlike red maple, which has serrated margins.

The margins of sugar maple leaves are smooth, not serrated like red maple.
Red maple with its serrated margins (left), and sugar maple with smooth margins (right).

In the fall, sugar maple turns colors varying from bright yellow to orange, with red occasionally thrown in. As a rule of thumb, trees grown in the open will be more orange, and trees grown in tighter, competitive conditions will be more yellow.

A dominant sugar maple with orange foliage.
Large, dominant sugar maple with orange foliage.
A stand of sugar maples turning yellow in the fall.
A dense stand of sugar maples in the fall with yellow foliage.

Looking at the Buds

In the winter, leaves aren’t available for identification, so you need to know how to identify sugar maple by the buds. The first characteristic you should look at is the arrangement of the buds. Most trees will have twigs and buds that have a staggered, alternating arrangement along the stem. Only maple and ash trees, however, have what is called an opposite arrangement, meaning twigs and buds are directly across from each other on the stem.

Once you know the tree has an opposite arrangement, look at the characteristics of the bud itself. The bud of the sugar maple will be brown and pointed. Buds of other maples are blunted and might be red or purple.

The opposite bud arrangement is key to identifying maples.
long, brown, and pointed buds with an opposite arrangement.

Identifying Sugar Maple by the Bark

There are then times when the tree is tall, and both leaves and buds are unavailable. If that is the case, you may have no choice bit to identify it by one of the trickiest characteristics: The bark. However, this method can really only be used on older trees. Younger sugar maples will simply not have the characteristic bark to allow you to accurately differentiate them from red maples. The bark on older sugar maples, however, is thick, developing distinct plates like armor. These plates will be difficult to pick off, and the flakiness of the bark will be minimal. Moreover, these plates tend to lift up off the tree from side to side and not top to bottom.

The thick plates of sugar maple bark are a difficult way to learn how to identify sugar maple.
Characteristic sugar maple bark with thick plates rising up from the sides.

To offer contrast, this is the bark from a red maple, with much thinner, flakier plates rising up from top to bottom:

Classic red maple bark

Now Go Practice!

Bring this article on your phone and head out to your woodlot or local trails and try to find a few sugar maples. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll be able to identify the species like a professional forester, and you’ll start to make observations and see trends that will teach you more about the forest than you could ever imagine. Have fun!

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