Bigleaf maple

Category: Hardwood
Region: Coast
Title: Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum)

Bigleaf maple, the largest maple in Canada, only grows in the southwest corner of BC. It yields attractive wood that can be used for higher-value, appearance-grade products.

Bigleaf maple is the largest maple tree in Canada and can reach 36 metres in height. It often grows in mixed groups of softwood and hardwood species such as red alder, black cottonwood, Douglas-fir, western red cedar and western hemlock.

Where it grows

Bigleaf maple is a deciduous broadleaf tree that grows exclusively at low and mid elevations in the southwest corner of BC. It is frequently found in clumps of three to five, all originating from a single stump. The species is moderately shade tolerant and commonly occurs in mixed groups of softwood and hardwood species such as red alder, black cottonwood, Douglas-fir, western red cedar and western hemlock. Bigleaf maple produces abundant seeds so its regeneration capacity is excellent even though the seeds are an important source of food for small mammals.

Identifiable characteristics

Bigleaf maple, also known as Pacific Coast maple or western maple, is the largest maple tree in Canada, reaching 36 metres in height on good sites. In the forest, it develops a narrow crown that is supported by a stem free of branches for half its length. In the open, it has a broad crown supported by a few large spreading limbs. The bark is greyish-brown and shallowly grooved when the tree is older. The species lives an average of 200 years, with some up to 300 years.

The leaves are the largest of any maple in Canada, measuring 15 to 30 centimetres across. They are deeply five-lobed and have a few blunt, wavy teeth. They are shiny dark green on top and paler underneath and turn yellow in the fall. Small greenish-yellow flowers, about three millimetres across, appear in clusters at the ends of twigs in the spring. The fruit consists of two winged seeds joined at the base, which are three to six centimetres long.

Did you know?

Grain patterns are unsurpassed in some bigleaf maple trees. Occasionally, pieces have highly figured, wavy grain—these include bird’s eye, fiddle-back, blister and curly maple.

Common uses and applications

Bigleaf maple wood is attractive, as well as hard and heavy, so it is used for higher-value, appearance-grade products such as flooring, cabinetry and furniture, as well as turnings, musical instruments and interior millwork. It is also used for panelling, veneer and plywood.

Coastal Indigenous peoples consider it an excellent fuel. They also use the wood to carve utensils, tools and toys, including spindle whorls and canoe paddles. They use the bark to weave ropes and baskets and spread the leaves over and under food in steam pits and picking baskets.

Commercial properties

Bigleaf maple is moderately heavy, hard and of medium strength. It is well known for its working properties. The wood dries without difficulty, but rather slowly. It is relatively easy to work, with good machining qualities. It turns, planes and shapes well and can be sanded to a smooth finish. The wood glues easily, has moderate nail and screw holding ability, and takes a good finish. The wood grain is straight or sometimes curly or wavy. It has medium to occasionally coarse grain and even texture.

Forest Sciences Centre, UBC
Photo credit: Don Erhardt

Commercial availability

Bigleaf maple is moderately available and comes in appearance and millworking grades including Select and better, #1 shop and frame grade, produced according to National Hardwood Lumber Association rules.  The lumber is dried according to end use and customer specifications. Kiln drying inhibits natural staining of the wood, improves its strength and stiffness, enhances its appearance, and increases its resistance to decay and insect attacks.