Tree Notes is about trees -- especially native trees, trees for wildlife, and trees in history.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Weak branches are a problem with silver maples

Don't plant silver maples too close to your house.


During the recent devastating ice storm in Kentucky, we heard tree branches breaking all night, with terrible pops that sounded like gunshots. Limbs hit our roof with tremendous thumps. Daylight revealed an incredible scene of natural destruction in our yard.

The photo below was taken through the living room window the morning after the storm. This photo shows only a portion of the branches that broke from a large silver maple (Acer saccharinum), about 15 feet from the window. We have dents and a puncture in our metal roof as a result of the falling branches.

This big silver maple tree was planted by the original owner of our house in about 1960. At about 50 years of age now, it's in its maturity. It provides a lot of shade, but it's dangerous because its weak, brittle branches break easily. This is the great flaw of silver maples (also known as water maples or soft maples.)

The tree's main trunk ends at about ten feet. It has five long, massive limbs growing upward from the trunk, and each limb has smaller branches, of course. One of those limbs poses an ongoing (and increasing) threat to our house. I'm afraid that we need to completely remove that limb. It will be hard on the tree to lose it, but we don't have much choice.

Two more silver maples are planted too close to our house. They are younger trees, planted about 1980. One of them is even closer to the house than the tree outside our living room window.

I understand what the planter wanted -- afternoon shade -- and he would be happy to know that his trees provide that. However, as years pass, both those trees are going to be major problems. To prevent large branches from falling on the roof, we'll have to remove whole sections of the trees. It's very sad.

Silver maples have their merits. They aren't very fussy about where they're planted. They grow well in urban conditions. They will grow in compacted soil. They tolerate short spells of standing in shallow water. They are a valuable tree for wildlife -- especially in late winter and spring when their buds, blooms, and seeds provide food at a time that other food supplies are limited. They have a small-but-noticable, red blossom in early spring when not much else is blooming. They withstand drought and heat, and of course, they do grow very fast.

Unfortunately, silver maples also have a very undesirable characteristic -- weak branches that break in every ice or wind storm that occurs.

If you are willing to deal with the broken branches, silver maples will serve as a fast-growing, short-term (50 to 100 year) tree. They grow up to 100 feet in height with 100-foot canopies. You should plant them at least 50 feet away from anything that could be damaged by falling limbs. Consider power lines, roads, and driveways, as well as your house and other buildings when you select the planting site.

Take my advice and you won't ever have a story to tell about broken silver maple branches making dents in your roof.

2 comments -- please add yours:

yorkies1_2000 said...

very helpful warning, I have one close to my house (self planted)
As in, it grew without my planting it)
I keep an eye on it's branches,

Anonymous said...

Just had our 60+ year old Silver maple cut down today. Branches fell off this thing every time it got a little windy. Not good to have next to house.

Hurricane Irene pretty did it in, lost almost the entire crown of the tree.

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Enrich your life with the study of trees.

"The power to recognize trees at a glance without examining their leaves or flowers or fruit as they are seen, for example, from the car-window during a railroad journey, can only be acquired by studying them as they grow under all possible conditions over wide areas of territory. Such an attainment may not have much practical value, but once acquired it gives to the possessor a good deal of pleasure which is denied to less fortunate travelers."

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Print references I frequently consult

Benvie, Sam. Encyclopedia of North American Trees. Buffalo, NY: Firefly, 2000.

Brockman, C. Frank. Trees of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. Ed. Herbert S. Zim. New York: Golden, 1986.

Cliburn, Jerry, and Ginny Clomps. A Key to Missouri Trees in Winter: An Identification Guide. Conservation Commission of the State of Missouri, 1980.

Collingwood, G. H., Warren David Brush, and Devereux Butcher. Knowing Your Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1978.

Dirr, Michael. Dirr's Hardy Trees and Shrubs: an Illustrated Encyclopedia. Portland, Or.: Timber, 1997.

Elias, Thomas S. The Complete Trees of North America; Field Guide and Natural History. New York: Book Division, Times Mirror Magazines, 1980.

Grimm, William Carey. The Book of Trees;. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole, 1962.

Hightshoe, Gary L. Native Trees, Shrubs, and Vines for Urban and Rural America: a Planting Design Manual for Environmental Designers. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1988.

Little, Elbert L. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees. New York: Chanticleer, 1996.

Martin, Alexander C., Herbert S. Zim, and Arnold L. Nelson. American Wildlife and Plants. New York: McGraw Hill, 1951.

Mitchell, Alan F., and David More. The Trees of North America. New York, NY: Facts On File Publications, 1987.

Randall, Charles E. Enjoying Our Trees. Washington: American Forestry Association, 1969.

Settergren, Carl D., and R. E. McDermott. Trees of Missouri. Columbia: University Extension, 1995.

Sternberg, Guy, and James W. Wilson. Native Trees for North American Landscapes: from the Atlantic to the Rockies. Portland: Timber, 2004.

Wharton, Mary E., and Roger W. Barbour. Trees and Shrubs of Kentucky. Lexington: University of Kentucky, 1973.

Wyman, Donald. Trees for American Gardens. New York: Macmillan, 1965.

Photos and text copyright © 2006-2010 by Genevieve L. Netz. All rights reserved. Do not republish without written permission. My e-mail address is gnetz51@gmail.com