Freeman Maples

 

(This 862nd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on September 30, 2007.)

 

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Two Freeman Maple Leaves

 

Joanne Schlegel is a past president of the Niagara Frontier Botanical Society, an avid gardener and botanist and one of the small group of volunteers who are updating the extensive botanical collection at the Buffalo Museum of Science Clinton Herbarium.

 

Joanne has not confined her botanical efforts to indoor activities. She has also been working for three years on a major outdoor research task: recording the flora of Baehre Swamp in Amherst. To me her efforts represent the very best of what has come to be known as citizen science.

 

Baehre Swamp is located on both sides of Hopkins Road north of Klein Road. In it a quarter-mile, state-maintained boardwalk parallels the highway.

 

Several days ago I joined Joanne at Margaret Louise Park for a walk into the swamp. An indication of this dry year: we didn't even need boots. Normally most of this area is covered with water but, although the rich soil still felt moist, it hardly wet my shoes.

 

We began along the boardwalk but soon ventured farther west off the trail. When we did so, the change was striking. Between the boardwalk and the highway most of the plants are aliens. Knotweed and common reed have largely taken over this area, crowding out cattails and other native plants. But farther in, American wildflowers predominate. Among them are white snakeroot, sticktight, cocklebur, jewelweed, skunk cabbage and, of course, the ever-present poison ivy. At this time of year rich purple and red leaves disguise those dangerous poison ivy vines.

 

We were not focused on wildflowers, however. Joanne is now working on the trees of this region and she pointed out some of the many species found here: swamp white oak, cottonwood, black and crack willows, American elm, red ash, quaking aspen, box elder and catalpa.

 

Although those other trees appear, this is predominately a maple forest. An indication of this is illustrated by Joanne's random survey of a section of the woodland: 37 of the 40 trees she found there were maples.

 

But as she identified those maples, Joanne noticed something unusual about them. She expected a mix of red and silver species and at first identified almost all she found as reds. Looking closer, however, she found that the characteristics of the trees in Baehre Swamp differed from those of the usual red maples. Several of their identification characters did not apply to these trees.

 

In particular, the middle lobe of the red maple leaf (opposite the stem) is wider at the base than at the end. Also its samara is small -- usually an inch or less in length. Samaras are those winged seeds, usually doubled to create what we used to call pinwheels. The trees Joanne examined almost all had leaves narrower at the base of that lobe than at the end and larger samaras.

 

Clearly something was unusual here. She retreated to the museum library and searched the literature about maples. There she found a report of some research on maples done for the Canadian Forestry Service in the Ottawa Valley by botanist Mary Moore. Moore was looking for red maple-silver maple hybrids called Freeman maples. (The scientific name for this hybrid is either Acer saccharinum x rubrum or Acer x fremanii.)

 

Most notable in Moore's report was her comment that "these hybrids typically occurred in maple swamps or along flood plains...where trees were surrounded by water in spring." Baehre Swamp certainly fits that description.

 

Back to the swamp went Joanne. Checking the trees she found that they were almost all Freeman maples, a hybrid not previously reported from this region's woodlands. (Freeman maples are also grown and sold by a few nurseries.)

 

On our hike we examined many maple leaves, most of them still green. All we found were Freemans, which led to an interesting question: are the maples elsewhere in this region's swampy areas also Freeman maples?

 

This is a question that you readers can help answer. Check the maples in nearby swamps to determine whether their leaves meet the Freeman maple characteristics. Please communicate your findings -- red or Freeman -- to me and I will pass them on to Joanne.-- Gerry Rising