In the Wild ...

Maples

By Mary T. Harrington

    With all of wonderful flowers popping up from the ground during the spring season, I often forget to look up and watch the blossoming of the common trees in this area. A very familiar and early blooming tree indigenous to our community is the Acer species or Maple.  Maples generally grow in height from 15 to 100 feet. The leaves are simple, lobed, sometimes compound and opposite. The flowers are unisexual occurring in panicles. In Lenoir for example, you will most likely find the Red Maple (Acer rubrum) or the Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum).

      

    The Red Maple is a hardy shade tree growing to about 70 feet in height. Although Red Maple prefers moist lowland areas, it tolerates a wide range of cultural conditions. It is a good candidate for city parks and streets that might have poorer soil content or air pollution. The leaves are generally 2-4 inches long with three to five lobes. There are male and female in this species. Red (female) and orange (male) flowers appear in early spring and are primarily bee pollinated before the leaves emerge. In fall, the foliage is bright red (male) or yellow to a yellow orange (female). The deepness of the red color in the autumnal leaves is directly related to higher acidity levels in the soil. The life span for Red Maple is about 70 years. This tree is not usually used for maple syrup, as the sugar content in the sap is too low. The tree primarily utilized for maple syrup is the Sugar Maple. 

    The Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) grows to 100 feet in height and has a 300-year life span.  Sugar Maple prefers calcium-rich soil in the upland woods of the eastern deciduous forest. It can survive years of suppressed growth in dense shade before reaching the sunlight and tree canopy above. The leaves are 4-6 inches long, opposite and have three to five lobes. In spring, there are inconspicuous light yellow flowers that are pollinated by bees and other insects before the leaves emerge. In fall, the sugar maple turns a stunning orangey red or yellow. 

    This tree is considered sacred to the Haudenosaunee of the Onondaga Nation in New York, for example, and a gift from the creator. Every year to date an annual thanksgiving celebration occurs with the rising of the sap, honoring another year’s survival. It is from the rising sap that maple syrup is made.

    It takes at least 32 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup. The water is boiled off the sap in order to make the syrup.  Two hundred to 250 gallons of sap rise in mature Sugar Maples each spring day. The sap brings nutrients to the emerging flowers and leaves. Sunny days and freezing nights act as pump lifting the stored sucrose from the roots made from last years leaves. Early colonists also highly prized the sugar maple often drinking the sap straight as a “spring tonic” (before indoor plumbing, spring tonics were used to clean the internal body systems after a long, cold winter in which one was less likely to use the outhouse).

    The Acer sp. supplies food and shelter to a variety of wildlife. The list of insects that are specialized maple feeders is lengthy for the scope of this article but include bees, spiders, a variety of moth caterpillars and midges. Maple leaves and buds supply the early springtime nutrients to Porcupines after a winter of primarily woodland tree inner bark. Flickers nest in maple trunk cavities often returning to the same home during this time of year.  Squirrels have been observed biting into the bark and visiting repeatedly to lick the hardened sap from the bitten area.  In this area, birds and mammals know to use Maple twigs, seeds, flowers and buds are: Grouse, Turkey, Chickadee, Purple Finch, Goldfinch, Grosbeak sp., Red Breasted Nuthatch, Black Bear, Beaver, Rabbit, Raccoon, Chipmunk and Deer.

    Red Maple is the State tree of Rhode Island. Sugar Maple is the State tree of New York Vermont, West Virginia and Wisconsin.  

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