Alabama has four native species of “sugar” maples. Acer nigrum, black maple, is the least common, occurring sporadically in three Alabama counties in the northeast. Acer saccharum, sugar maple, occurs primarily in the northwestern half of the state and can be found in relatively significant numbers there. Both are large trees and will yield maple sugar, but require a climate much colder than ours to do so.
The sugar maples most typically encountered in Alabama are Florida sugar maple, Acer floridanum (incorrectly, A. barbatum), and chalk maple, Acer leucoderme, whose specific epithet literally means “white bark.” Their cheerful, eye-popping red/orange/yellow fall color can be seen lighting up the understories of forests and woodland edges throughout the state. Mid to late November seems to be the peak around Birmingham. Both show good adaptability for general landscape use as small to medium-sized trees and are adapted to acid and alkaline pH in soils rocky, loamy and clayey. Both tolerate sunny and shady sites and show good to excellent drought tolerance once established.
Of the two, Florida sugar maple is the larger-growing: well-studied individuals in the northern part of its range, near Jamestown, VA, are simply massive, while individuals in Alabama can reach 60’, developing gray bark that is broken into large plates (like A. saccharum), frequently with black stains, a result of mold that grows on sap oozing out from sapsucker holes. These birds eat both the sap and insects that feed on it. Chalk maple is smaller (~30’), with smooth, pale gray bark. It is sometimes shrubby in appearance, with multiple trunks. While these two species are variable, there is more to separate them than size and stems.
Look at the leaves, always checking several to get an “average.” On Florida sugar maple the edges of the center lobe are parallel or taper inward toward the leaf base. On chalk maple, they taper outward, sometimes making the center lobe appear broadly triangular. Leaves of both are densely hairy (pubescent) beneath, but the former is pale green to gray (silvery); the latter green to pale brown (yellowish). The latter also holds some crispy, tawny-colored leaves, like Fagus sylvatica, American beech, through the winter.