Hard or Soft Maple

Telling the two species apart before the leaves show. May 10, 2005

What is the best way to determine if a tree is hard or soft maple? The leaves are not out yet and I need to be able to tell from the bark.

Forum Responses
(Forestry Forum)
From contributor G:
Last year's red maple twigs are red with red buds. Last year's hard maple twigs are tan-brown with tan-brown buds. Describing how to tell the difference in the bark between the 2 species is difficult because there is a lot of variation due to region, tree maturity and site effects.

From contributor D:
Around here, NE OK hard maples have a blackish bark and the tree holds on to its leaves during the winter. Soft maple have a grayish bark and drop their leaves during the winter.

From contributor B:
The best way to tell is to look at the buds. Soft maple or red maple has a red bud that is blunt or rounded. Hard maple or sugar maple has a brown or tan bud that has a sharp point. Also if you look at the bark and it has a "bullseye" pattern in it, it is a soft maple. You can also rub your hand on the bark. If it flakes off, it is more than likely a soft maple. If the bark stays on the tree and tries to cut your hand, it is probably a hard maple. Sometimes you can tell by the color of the bark, but since it varies region by region, I wouldn't rely on that characteristic to identify the tree. The bud method is absolutely foolproof, though.