How To Identify A Maple And A Japanese Maple

Deciduous

There are several ways to tell the difference between Japanese, red and sugar maples, but observing their leaf shape is the easiest way to differentiate.

Japanese maple leaves have 5-7 serrated lobes with deep incisions, while red and sugar maple leaves have 3-5 lobes with shallow incisions.  The lobes of Japanese maple are hand-like and much more slender than red and sugar maple.

How to identify a maple and a Japanese maple

Leaf shape

Japanese maple leaves have pointed, tail-like tips and are deeply lobed with incisions that extend almost up to the joint of the stem.

Both red maple and sugar maple are slightly lobed, but while red maple has pointed tips, sugar maple has blunt ones.  Red and sugar maple incisions are not as apparent as that of Japanese maple’s.

Japanese maple:
deeply lobed & pointed tips

Japanese maple leaf

Red maple:
slightly lobed & pointed tips

Red maple leaf

Sugar maple:
slightly lobed & blunt tips

Sugar maple leaf

※Click to enlarge

Number of lobes

Japanese maple has 5-7 lobes while red maple and sugar maple have 3-5 lobes.

Japanese maple:
5-7 lobes

Japanese maple lobes

Red maple:
3-5 lobes

Red maple lobes

Sugar maple:
3-5 lobes

Sugar maple lobes

※Click to enlarge

Leaf margin

Leaf margins of Japanese maple and red maple are irregularly serrated, while those of sugar maple are smooth (no serration).

Japanese maple:
serrated

Japanese maple-serrated

Red maple:
serrated

Red maple- leaf margin

Sugar maple:
smooth

Sugar maple- leaf margin

※Click to enlarge

Buds

  • Japanese maple buds are broadly conical and green/red.
  • Red maple buds are rounded and red, and side buds are as large as terminal buds.
  • Sugar maple buds are sharply pointed and brown, and side buds are much smaller than terminal buds.

Japanese maple:
conical & green/red

Japanese maple buds

(source)

Red maple:
rounded & red

Red maple buds

(Photo©Ben Armstrong)

Sugar maple:
sharply pointed & brown

Sugar maple buds

(Photo©Quinten Wiegersma)

※Click to enlarge

Samaras

Japanese maple samaras are green with horizontal wings.  Red maple samaras are bright red with wings like a fly while sugar maple samaras are green with large round seeds.

Japanese maple:
green/red

Japanese maple samaras

(source: Wikipedia)

Red maple:
bright red

Red maple samaras

(Photo©Katja Schulz)

Sugar maple:
green

Sugar maple samaras

(Photo©Rob Foster)

※Click to enlarge

Differences between Japanese, red and sugar maples (table)

Here are the differences between Japanese, red and sugar maples in a table format.

Japanese maple Red maple Sugar maple
Latin name Acer palmatum Acer rubrum Acer saccharum
Native to Japan, Korea, China North America North America
Plant type Deciduous Deciduous Deciduous
Height 50 ft (15m) 100 ft (30m) 40-120 ft (12-36m)
Width 30 inches
(80cm)
18 to 35 inches
(46-88 cm)
30 to 60 inches
(80-160 cm)
Leaf size 1-2 inches (3-7cm) 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) 3-6 inches (8-16cm)
Leaf shape Deeply lobed/
pointed tips
Slightly lobed/
pointed tips
Slightly lobed/
blunt tips
No. of lobes 5-7 lobes 3-5 lobes 3-5 lobes
Leaf margin Serrated Serrated Smooth
Leaf color Various Green to red Green to red
Buds Conical and green/red Rounded & red Pointed & brown
Samaras Green/red Bright red Green
Bark Light gray & smooth Dark gray & rough Light gray & rough
Syrup No (possible) Yes Yes

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Related posts
“Can any maple tree be a bonsai?” (Link here)
“The best Japanese maple for bonsai” (Link here)

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Reference
University of North Carolina Extension Gardener (Japanese maple / red maple/ sugar maple)
bplant.org

 

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