While walking in my neighborhood last week, I noticed that red flower buds of the silver maples (Acer saccharinum) were showing, and I figured this would be an appropriate time to feature this tree as the plant of the week. The reddish color is gradually disappearing, making the flower clusters less conspicuous (as shown in the picture below).
While a very common landscaping tree, silver maples have a pretty bad reputation. I first heard the expression "water maple" from a real estate agent, warning me for the plumbing problems these trees could bring. This set off a light bulb in my head, reminding me of an apartment building where I used to live where the basement flooded repeatedly. Although the large old silver maple in front of the building was fingered as the most likely culprit, it was not clear to me then that this species is notorious for this. My tree guide (National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees, Eastern Region) describes the branches as "brittle" and likely to break in windstorms. I witnessed this first hand during a windstorm a few years ago, during which the tree shown in the picture below sustained considerable damage.
There are plenty of silver maples in my neighborhood with similar damage (another example is shown below).
While I have heard of sugar maples being tapped for maple syrup, my plant guide points out that the sugar yield is low. As far as identification is concerned, I think the bark usually gives it away during the winter (exemplified below). The leaves are also quite distinct, but that does of course not help at this time of the year.
Little, EL. 1980. The Audubon Society field guide to North American trees. Eastern Region. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York.