Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I've found myself making a mental list of plants I'd like to have in my dream garden. Many people talk wistfully about dream houses, but my daydreams turn to gardens. This time of year, one tree stands out to me–the sugar maple, Acer saccharum. Most likely you've seen this tree, even if you were unsure of the name. Think of the most brilliant fall color, often with vibrant reds, oranges, and yellows on the same tree. More than likely, you were looking at a sugar maple. Many consider it to be a very reliable source of fall color, proudly showing off even in years when other trees might not be as flashy.
The sugar maple's beautiful fall display comes at a price though. It is a poor choice for environments that tend to have compacted soils, such as locations near streets and sidewalks. It can also be sensitive to drought conditions, and the leaves may scorch. But if you have a moist, well-drained location on your property with adequate space and sun to moderate shade, the sugar maple may be a great choice for you. In the right environment, sugar maple can reach heights of 60-75 feet. Just think how beautiful a tree that size would be in the fall!
Though the requirements of a sugar maple may be a bit strict, there are cultivars available that may make it easier for you to grow your own bit of autumn beauty. The 'Green Mountain' cultivar has thick leathery leaves that resist scorch in the hot summer sun, and provide brilliant yellow fall color. The 'Legacy' and 'Adirondak' cultivars also have leathery leaves, and resistant wind tatter and drought, coupled with showy orange autumn displays. For more information on fall color and selecting trees suitable for your landscape, check out the University of Illinois Extension Hort Corner website at http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/hort/index.html.