Sugar Maples in Autumn
(This 759th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 16, 2005.)
In his rich prose Donald Culross Peattie says it all: "The most magnificent display of color in all the kingdom of plants is the autumnal foliage of the trees of North America. Over them all, over the clear light of the aspens and mountain ash, over the leaping flames of sumac and the hell-fire flickerings of poison ivy, over the war-paint of the many oaks, rise the colors of one tree -- the sugar maple -- in the shout of a great army. Clearest yellow, richest crimson, tumultuous scarlet, or brilliant orange -- the foliage of sugar maple at once outdoes and unifies the rest." (Peattie 1950)
The sugar maple enjoys a special place in our arboretum not just once but twice each year. Many of us enthuse over its wonderful syrup and candy each spring and then, after paying little heed to its graceful shape, its attractive green foliage and its handsome leaf pattern through the summer, give it even greater attention in the fall when its lovely colors take charge of our scenery.
This tree has always been an important part of the forests of our northeastern states. When the European colonists arrived on these shores, Native Americans had long used it for a variety of purposes. Most important, since honeybees are not native to North America, the maple sap provided them their only sweetener. In fact, Diana Beresford-Kroger speculates that this practice was brought across the Bering Sea landbridge by the first visitors to the New World about 22,000 years ago. (Beresford-Kroeger 2003)
Indeed, maples are not restricted to the Western Hemisphere. Some 200 species exist worldwide. Historically, Roman legions carried spears whittled from maple wood and it was even favored by medieval necromancers as the wood with which to skewer vampires. (Rupp 1991)
In this country the sugar maple earned a new name as rock maple for Rebecca Rupp tells us that it served the newcomers "for small housewares: rolling pins, bread boards, butter prints and molds, ladles, spoons and chopping bowls. Cobblers used maple lasts and cabinetmakers prized it for furniture, especially for chairs." Maple remains today an important, beautifully grained, hard furniture wood. My own children slept in maple bunk beds.
That valuable wood was a problem for maple trees as the hard choice the colonial farmer had to make usually led to the assignment of most of them to the sawmill. For now he had alternative sources of sweeteners: honey and store-bought sugar derived from sugar cane. By the middle of the 19th century maples were severely depleted from the northeastern states and adjacent Canada where they had formerly flourished. It was not until well into the 20th century that some of the almost completely cleared agricultural land began to revert to woodlots. Most of even the oldest of today's trees are second growth.
Standing alone the maple has an attractive shape with branches reaching out from about head height on up and the tree itself growing to 60 to 80 feet with as much as a two foot diameter bole, but in forests they spread less and grow higher to a maximum of 135 feet. There a few of the oldest trees can be five feet in diameter. (Harlow 1957)
While we rhapsodize over the sugar maple, we should not forget its cousin, the red maple, whose namesake color further enriches our fall scenery. Red maple is considered by many foresters a weed tree that steals sunlight from its betters in the farmer's sugar bush. Also its sap is far less attractive and its wood softer than that of sugar maple. For those reasons this species is often culled from the farmer's sugar bush. But in earliest spring, when its buds cast a pink shade over hillside treetops, and now again in fall, when the anthocyanins in its leaves overwhelm the green chlorophyll and cause them to turn as well, the red maple makes its own colorful contribution to our scenery.
How fortunate we are to have these lovely fall weeks when our countryside vistas are almost overwhelmed with color. There is no question in my mind that the autumns of western New York can compete with the finest scenery anywhere.-- Gerry Rising
Beresford-Kroeger, Diana. 2003. Arboretum America. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press.
Harlow, William M. 1957. Trees of the Eastern and Central United States and Canada. New York, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. Original edition, McGraw-Hill Book Company in 1942.
Peattie, Donald Culross. 1950. A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America. Second ed. New York: Bonanza Books.
Rupp, Rebecca. 1991. Red Oaks & Black Birches: The Science and Lore of Trees. Pownall, Vermont: Storey Communications, Inc.