California’s Mediterranean climate provides ideal growing conditions for several species of maple trees.
With their brilliant fall colors, attractive leaf shapes, and majestic forms, maple trees can make stunning additions to landscapes across the state.
This article explores the top 10 maple tree varieties that thrive in California.
Overview of Maple Trees in California
- There are over 128 species of maple trees, but only about 10 are commonly grown in California. The most popular include red maple, sugar maple, bigleaf maple, box elder, and Japanese maple.
- Maple trees are deciduous, meaning they lose their leaves in fall. They put on a show-stopping display of red, orange, yellow or purple fall foliage.
- Maples thrive in moderately moist, well-draining soil and need ample sun exposure. Some varieties tolerate partial shade.
- Maple trees range in height from small Japanese maples under 10 feet to large shade trees up to 100 feet tall. This makes them suitable for spaces big and small.
- Maples produce winged seeds called samaras. These ‘helicopter’ seeds twirl down from the trees in fall.
- Deer tend to avoid maple trees, making them a good choice if deer are a problem.
- Maple trees attract birds with their early flowers and seeds. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other wildlife also feed on the seeds.
- Most maple tree varieties grow well in USDA zones 5-9, spanning most of California.
The Top 10 Maple Trees for California Landscapes
1. Red Maple (Acer rubrum)
The red maple is one of the most popular large shade trees for California landscapes. Some key facts:
- Grows 60-90 feet tall with a oval to rounded shape.
- Green foliage turns brilliant shades of red in fall.
- Fast growth rate of up to 2 feet per year.
- Tolerates heat, drought, pollution, and coastal conditions.
- Provides nice bright red fall color in zones 7-10.
Red maples thrive in full sun and well-drained soil.
They make excellent shade trees for parks, along streets, or in large residential landscapes.
Plant them where the blazing red fall color can be admired.
2. Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)
The sugar maple is famous for its sap that’s used to make maple syrup. It also makes a stately landscape specimen. Here’s an overview:
- Grows 60-80 feet high with a dense oval to rounded crown.
- Foliage turns vibrant orange to burnt red in fall.
- Fairly fast growth rate, up to 1-2 feet per year.
- Tolerant of heat, drought, and air pollution once established.
- Tapperable for syrup production.
For best fall color, plant sugar maples in full sun and acidic, well-draining soil. They work well as shade trees or for naturalizing areas.
Plant them where the remarkable fall colors can steal the show.
3. Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum)
The bigleaf maple is a massive shade tree native to California. Facts about bigleaf maples:
- Grows up to 100 feet tall with a broad, rounded crown.
- Huge leaves span up to 1 foot wide!
- Yellow to golden fall color.
- Naturally occurs in California forests and riparian zones.
- Fast growth rate when young.
- Provides great shade over homes, decks, or patios.
Bigleaf maples thrive with regular water in zones 6-10. They can handle our warm inland valleys.
Plant them as specimen trees where their huge leaves and dappled shade can be appreciated.
4. Box Elder (Acer negundo)
Box elder is a medium maple tree well adapted to warm climates:
- Grows 30-50 feet tall with a spreading, rounded form.
- Compound leaves turn yellow in fall.
- Fast growing up to 3 feet per year.
- Tolerates heat, drought, wind, and salt spray.
- Good choice for challenging sites.
Box elders grow in zones 3-9 in full sun to partial shade. Use them as smaller shade trees, for screens, or in naturalized areas.
They’re one of the most stress-tolerant maple trees.
5. Trident Maple (Acer buergerianum)
The trident maple is a lovely small accent tree for California landscapes with these attributes:
- Grows 20-30 feet tall and wide in an oval to rounded shape.
- Foliage turns yellow, orange, and red in fall.
- Tolerates drought, heat, wind, and coastal conditions.
- Grows well in zones 5-9.
Tridents thrive in full sun to partial shade. Use them for fall color around patios and entries or where a small accent tree is needed.
They combine nicely with evergreens.
6. Amur Maple (Acer ginnala)
For brilliant red fall color, consider the Amur maple:
- Grows 15-20 feet tall with a graceful rounded shape.
- Foliage turns fiery shades of red and orange in fall.
- Withstands drought, pollution, wind, and coastal salt spray.
- Does well in zones 3-8.
- Grows in full sun to part shade.
Amur maple makes a fantastic small specimen tree to light up landscapes with fall colors.
It tolerates challenging conditions, making it versatile.
7. Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)
The paperbark maple offers year-round beauty:
- Grows 20-30 feet high with a oval to rounded shape.
- Peeling cinnamon-red bark provides winter interest.
- Foliage turns brilliant red in fall.
- Does well in zones 5-9.
- Prefers full sun to partial shade.
For stunning bark and fall color, plant paperbark maples as specimen trees.
Use them by entries, patios, or anywhere their beauty can be admired.
8. Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum)
Japanese maples are small garden accent trees with eye-catching attributes:
- Slow growing to 10-25 feet tall, depending on variety.
- Finely dissected leaves in green or reddish shades.
- Graceful form works well in Asian gardens.
- Foliage turns vibrant red in fall.
- Tolerates sun along the coast, needs afternoon shade inland.
- Does well in zones 5-9.
Japanese maples come in countless leaf forms and colors. Use them as focal points, entries, accents by patios, or in mixed borders.
They need well-draining soil and should be protected from hot afternoon sun.
9. Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)
The Norway maple is a medium shade tree for larger landscapes:
- Grows 50-75 feet high with a dense, rounded crown.
- Foliage turns yellowish in fall.
- Tolerates heat, drought, pollution, and salt spray.
- Grows well in zones 3-7.
- Good shade tree for large yards, parks, or along streets.
Norway maples thrive in full sun and acidic, moist soil. Use them where you need fast shade. Avoid poorer soils where leaf scorch may occur.
Their shallow roots can damage pavement so give them room.
10. Sycamore Maple (Acer pseudoplatanus)
The sycamore maple also makes a nice larger shade tree:
- Grows 60-70 feet tall with a broad, rounded crown.
- Large green leaves turn yellow-orange in fall.
- Tolerates heat, drought, wind, and coastal conditions once established.
- Does well in zones 5-9.
Sycamore maples thrive in full sun to partial shade. Plant them as shade trees in parks and larger landscapes.
Their massive size and broad crowns provide abundant shade.
Selecting and Caring for Maple Trees
When selecting a maple tree for your landscape, consider the eventual size to choose one fitting the space.
Dwarf and small varieties work well by entries or patios, while large shade tree types are better for parks and big yards.
Look for maples suited to your region’s climate. Most tolerate drought and heat once established but do better with occasional irrigation.
Amur, trident, and box elder maples are some of the most heat and drought tolerant.
Maples do best in slightly acidic, well-draining soil. Amend the soil with compost at planting to get them off to a good start.
Mulch around the base to conserve moisture and reduce weeds.
Water young maples regularly until their root systems establish.
Then taper off to occasional deep watering during dry periods.
Maples are relatively low maintenance once established. Prune them in late winter to shape and improve their structure.
Maples can be susceptible to Verticillium wilt, trunk/root rot, and certain pests like aphids and scale.
Select resistant varieties and maintain them properly to avoid issues.
Fantastic Fall Color and Versatility
With their stellar display of autumn color, maples are one of the best trees for fall.
Red, sugar, Amur, trident and Japanese maples offer particularly striking fall displays ranging from fiery reds to bright orange and yellow.
Maples adapt well to a variety of California climates and landscapes.
You’ll find the right maple tree for zones along the coast, inland valleys, and even the high desert when you choose suitable varieties.
With sizes ranging from small Japanese maples to massive bigleaf maple trees, there’s a maple to fit just about any space.
Maples make fine additions as shade trees along streets, accent trees by patios, or as focal points in lawns and gardens.
Incorporate maple trees into your landscape and enjoy their stunning seasonal transformation each fall. Maples provide bold fall colors, architectural interest, and wonderful natural beauty.
Here are answers to some frequently asked questions about growing maple trees in California:
What are the best types of maple trees for Southern California?
Some of the top maple trees for Southern California’s warm, dry climate include: Box Elder, Amur Maple, Trident Maple, Paperbark Maple, and Japanese Maple.
These are all fairly drought tolerant once established.
When is the best time to plant a maple tree in California?
The best time to plant maples is in fall after summer heat has passed, or early spring before the peak growing season. Cooler temperatures reduce transplant shock.
Avoid summer’s heat.
How much water do maple trees need in California?
Maples need regular watering while young, then can thrive with occasional deep soakings during dry periods once their root systems establish.
Provide more frequent irrigation in very hot climates.