Red maple is the state tree of Rhode Island. It is one of the most common and widespread tree species of eastern North America. However, it will only dominate young forests following human disturbance. It is not abundant in mature forest.
The presence of adult and juvenile red maples along all the mainland trails of Salter Grove, as well as along the driveway into the park, testifies to its ability to tolerate many growing conditions.
True to its name, red maple has flowers, fruits, leaf stalks, and autumn leaves that are red or reddish. It is one of the first plants to flower in early spring, several weeks before the leaves appear.
Its winged seeds, or samaras, are the smallest of all native maples and are released by early summer to germinate aboveground. Although adults are moderately shade tolerant, seedlings will only grow well in an environment with abundant light, explaining why this species would not become dominant in a mature forest.
A study compared the sap and syrup of sugar maple with that of red maple and the other soft maples (ash-leaved maple, Norway maple, and silver maple) and found that all were equal in sweetness, flavor, and quality. So why aren't the soft maples used in producing maple syrup?
Leafing appears to change the chemical makeup of sap, leading to an unpleasant flavor. The earlier leafing of soft maples would thus result in a shortened season and a less profitable syrup operation.
The wood of red maple is considered soft, but only relative to that of sugar maple. It is nonetheless valued by makers of musical instruments, custom furniture, and veneer for its ease of machining and staining, not to mention the aesthetic figures of the wood.
It is curious that whereas Native Americans used the bark to treat inflamed eyes and cataract, pioneers made cinnamon brown, and black dyes from the same bark.