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red maple leaves

This is the time of year that people with maple trees (genus Acer, maple family Aceraceae) are the envy of their neighbors. Maples, especially American and Japanese maples, turn bright red in the fall.

The Many Maple Offerings

But, maples have more to offer than that.

If the maples are sugar maples (Acer saccharum), of course you know that you could tap them in the spring and get sap that you boil down into maple syrup and maple sugar candy. It is a $150 million industry annually in the United States and $380 million in Canada, the world’s leading producer. All maples have sugar-rich sap in the spring, but the sugar maples are the most prolific. 

But, maples have more to offer than that.

Maple seeds, inner bark, and leaves are edible. The seeds can be peeled, boiled, and eaten, or snacked on raw. Seeds of all species are considered safe to eat but may be bitter. The inner bark is edible too. Inner barks are usually thought of as famine foods, but try maple out of curiosity and don’t forget it if you are lost in the woods. Young maple leaves can be sweet and tasty but some plants and species are quite bitter. The Japanese have a tradition of deep frying or tempura-ing the leaves of their maples. Of the American native maples, red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maple, and silver maple (Acer saccharinum) leaves are toxic to horses but not to people (and not to dogs or cats, in case yours eat plants).

But, maples have more to offer than that.

Wood! Maple is a prized wood for building, and as furniture, paneling, and sports equipment. Sugar maple and its southern relative black maple (Acer nigrum) are particularly important woods, “hard maples,” which are attractive, dense, and, yes, hard. They are used for bowling-alley floors and basketball courts, baseball bats, skateboards, and pool cues, but also for musical instruments such as guitars and violins and as the core of composite bows for archery. The branches can be split and woven into baskets.

But that’s not all!

Being dense, maple wood burns steadily and hot. It is one of the best woods for smoking meat, contributing a subtle smokiness to pork, chicken, and vegetables.

And yet there’s more!

Native Americans used maple bark, outer or inner depending on the problem, for a variety of ailments, for example as a rinse for sore eyes, a decoction to stop diarrhea, and a poultice for bruises and sores. Maple does not appear much in 20th or 21st-century herb books, though, perhaps because we have so many other choices.

Maple leaves are rich in tannins and will dye beautiful imprints on cloth.

maple leaves dyed onto cloth

Maple trees form gorgeous miniaturized trees (bonsai). My maples drop hundreds of seeds each year and many seedlings hide out in the corners of my yard. It would be easy to find one to make into a bonsai, though I’d be decades getting it the size of the one in the photo.

And finally 

The beautiful shape of the classic sugar maple leaf made it the symbol of Canada. 

Your maple tree offers so much beyond its wonderful shade.


Angier, B. 2008. Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. 2nd ed. Revised and updated. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. 

Kingsbury, N. 2015. Hidden Natural Histories. Trees. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois. 

Moerman, D.E. 1998. Native American Ethnobotany. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. online: http://naeb.brit.org. Accessed 11/5/19.

Rowland, S. B. 2013. Dyeing with fresh plants–how I do it. foxryde.blogspot.com http://foxryde.blogspot.com/2015/01/leaf-essence-scarves-done-with.html The method for printing with maple leaves. Accessed 10/29/19.

Thayer, S. 2017. Incredible Wild Edibles.  Forager’s Harvest Press, Bruce, WI. Details of making maple syrup. 

Werner, Leo H.,  “Maple Syrup Industry”.  In The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Canada. Article published February 07, 2006; Last Edited June 04, 2019. https://thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/maple-sugar-industry. Accessed 10/30/19.

Wikihow. 2019. How to eat maple seeds. https://www.wikihow.com/Eat-Maple-Seeds Accessed 10/30/19

Updated on Nov 7, 2019  |  Originally Published on Jan 1, 1970

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