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Red Maple vs Sugar Maple

Red maple has a highly variable leaf shape, and some can look similar to sugar maple, but they are easily distinguished by serrations and the color of the leaf underside. In winter, buds are easily distinguished. Samaras are also distinctive.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum)

The most abundant tree species in North America, and a habitat generalist, native to a wide range across the eastern part of the continent.
A shade-tolerant deciduous tree of the northeast, often associated with climax communities on rich, mesic sites.
Leaf margins serrated. Serrations fine and irregular.
Lobes pointed, but leaf margins smooth (not serrated) between points, with U-shaped regions in larger spaces between lobe tips.
Buds conspicuous, plump, rounded, and red; side buds as large as terminal buds, and angled outward.
Buds more discrete, sharply pointed, and brown. Side buds much smaller than terminal buds and angled in the direction of the twig.
Flowers well before leafing out. Flowers more erect, vibrant red with some yellow.
Flowers while leafing out. Flowers dangling, yellow-green.
Samaras bright red, usually well-formed when leaves are leafing out.
Samaras green with large round seeds; not yet formed when tree is leafing out.
Underside of mature leaves sometimes much lighter in color than top.
Underside of mature leaves similar in color or only slightly lighter than top.