Red Maples: A Celebration of Red

red maples in blossom

red maples in blossom

Sometime in mid-March, after the eastern phoebes have returned, our red maple tree buds turn a deeper scarlet, adding welcome color to our forest. Shortly thereafter I catch the faint scent of their opening red and orange flowers.

The clusters of dangling, bell-shaped red flowers with red forked tongues (stigmas) are female while the orange blossoms fringed with long yellow stamens that resemble old-fashioned shaving brushes, are male. Seen through a hand lens, the blossoms are lovely. At a distance their orange, red, and yellow combination is a pale reflection of autumnal color. Whole hillsides, especially in northern Pennsylvania, glow with their spring tints and signal that once again spring has truly arrived, even though they blossom when night temperatures are still below freezing.

Some trees are male, some are female, and some are both male and female, although in the latter case the male and female flowers are on separate side branches. For the most part, red maples are wind-pollinated, but that faint odor I detect also attracts early pollinating insects.

Red maples, seemingly in a hurry to bloom ahead of other tree species, also flower before they leaf out so that the leaves won’t block the movement of pollen from male to female flowers. A month after pollination, the female flowers have matured into dark red, double samaras or winged fruits more popularly known as “keys,” “helicopters,” or “whirligigs.” Each wing contains a seed that our chipmunks, gray and fox squirrels seem eager to consume after a long, hard winter, especially if the previous fall’s acorn crop has been sparse.

red maple keys

red maple keys

The red maple Acer rubrum, which means “red maple,” was named by the Swedish taxonomist, Carl Linnaeus, back in the eighteenth century. His student, Peter Kalm, traveled to North America in 1748 and stayed until 1751, living mostly in southern New Jersey’s Swedish colony or in eastern Pennsylvania. During a visit to Chester, Pennsylvania and its environs in 1748, Kalm wrote about red maples. They were plentiful trees that grew mostly in swampy, wet places. From their wood the colonists made plates, spinning wheels, spools, and feet for chairs and beds. They used the bark to concoct a blue dye and a “good, black ink.”

Today, red maples grow from sea level to 3000 feet and from swamps and bogs to dry mountaintops. They average 50 feet in height but can reach 60 to 90 feet under good conditions with a trunk diameter of between 18 and 30 inches. They are found from Manitoba to southern Newfoundland in Canada, south to central Florida and west to east Texas—the widest ranging tree species in North America.

Their leaves, like all maples, grow opposite one another on their branches. They have three to five lobes and are coarsely toothed along their edges. Dark green and shiny above, “its leaves are white or silvery on the under sides, and, when agitated by the wind, they make the tree appear as if it were full of flowers,” Kalm wrote. That has led to two of their alternate names– “silver maple” and “white maple.” Their leaf stems are usually red and their branchlets green at first, but then they become smooth and red. They have V-shaped leaf scars (where last year’s previous leaves have fallen off) that do not encircle their stems, and each scar contains three bundle scars (tiny, raised spots inside a leaf scar where the leaf has broken off). Their pith, which occupies the central portion of their twigs, branchlets, and roots, is pinkish and rarely increases in size after a tree’s first year.

red maple leaves in snow

red maple leaves in snow

We have four good-sized red maples growing along our driveway. On the streamside below our house, one red maple is 19 inches diameter at breast height (dbh) and the other is 20 dbh. Both are hoary with whitish crustose lichens and patches of green moss. The 19-inch tree was the favorite climbing tree of our three sons because it has a short trunk and wide limbs within easy reach of the ground. Both trees have shed branches and woodpecker holes.

The third tree, outside the guesthouse, is 18 inches dbh and is almost dead. Branches and long pieces of bark lie on the ground, and it is riddled with woodpecker holes including a large, vertical, pileated woodpecker food excavation hole. Still, one large branch bears the buds for next season’s flowers and leaves.

The largest and healthiest yard red maple grows down next to an old corral area below the guesthouse. It is 23 inches dbh, and our son Dave claims it may be the largest red maple on our 648 acres.

Red maples are relatively short-lived, reaching maturity at 70 to 80 years. Their branches are easily injured by wind storms, ice storms, and heavy snows, and their thin bark doesn’t heal quickly when it is drilled by woodpeckers in search of insects or by yellow-bellied sapsuckers and squirrels after the sweet sap of red maple trees. These wounds allow fungi to invade, most notably Inonotus glomeratus, which infects branch stubs and stem wounds, Oxyporus populinus, which forms small, white fruit bodies often beneath patches of moss, and Phellinus igniaris, which causes heart rot that, in turn, leads to a wind-snapped tree trunk or whole tree. No doubt that is what has invaded our guesthouse tree.

Gnarled husk of a dying maple

Gnarled husk of a dying maple

In addition, the gallmaking maple borer, maple callus borer, and scale insects can damage red maples and the elm spanworm can defoliate it.

Still, red maples are incredibly successful trees. They are prolific and early seed producers. Trees as young as four years bear samaras, and a tree one foot in diameter has as many as one million seeds. Almost every year they produce seeds, and every two years they have a bumper crop.

Before Europeans arrived in eastern North America, red maples represented less than five percent of the forest. Today many forests consist of 30 to 40 percent red maples, and they are the most abundant forest trees in Pennsylvania. Two of their alternate names are “swamp maple” and “water maple” because they used to grow only in wetland conditions — swamps, bogs, and wet forests as Kalm reported. But when their competitors on higher, drier ground died of disease, namely the American chestnut and American elm, and loggers selectively removed yellow birch, sugar maple, and oaks, shade tolerant red maples moved right in.

Then too deer numbers increased, and although they do browse on red maple seedlings, they prefer oaks and other hardwoods. Besides, red maples are prolific sprouters and spring up faster than oaks so they quickly grow beyond deer range.

Fire suppression has also favored red maples because their thin bark is easily damaged by fire whereas oaks, with their thick bark, deep roots, and dormant buds near or below the soil line that quickly germinate, can survive and even thrive under low level fires.

red maple leaf fallen into a rhododendron in a bottomland forest in West Virginia

red maple leaf fallen into a rhododendron in a bottomland forest in West Virginia

Acid rain has altered our forest soils, which is still another reason for the proliferation of red maples. They like acidic soil and oaks do not.

Red maples can withstand floods as long as 60 days because of their 80 feet of long woody roots that anchors them firmly to a sodden earth.

Drought doesn’t bother them much either. They merely stop growing until conditions improve and then produce a second growth flush.

Killing red maples isn’t easy as foresters and landowners have discovered because red maples are resistant to herbicides and girdling.

In our hundred-year-old forest, we have far more oaks than red maples, and in our three-acre deer exclosure, with its two-hundred-year-old trees, we have many more oak seedlings than red maple seedlings. But on our former neighbor’s 125-acre property that was logged before we bought it, they left some white, black and red oak seed trees, as well as a few tulip poplars and bitternut hickories. However, due to deer, there are few if any oak seedlings after 20 years, so in early spring I visit that portion of our land to savor red maple color.

For fall color, I hike over to a neighboring property that was also cut before it was sold more than 40 years ago. It is now a red maple forest that glows with a palette of colors almost as lovely as that of New England’s famed sugar maples.

While red maples may not be as useful to humans as oaks or sugar maples, their sap can be boiled for syrup and their wood used for furniture veneer, gun stocks, tool handles, pallets, plywood, oars, barrels, crates, flooring and railroad ties. But first and foremost, they are valuable ornamental and shade trees, although they are sensitive to ozone injury, which makes them less valuable as city street trees.

red maple blossoms in the fog

red maple blossoms in the fog

Native Americans too found red maples useful, especially infusions of their bark for treating hives, dysentery, women’s problems, and sore eyes. They used red maple wood to make baskets and for carving.

Some wild creatures also appreciate red maples. Porcupines eat their bark and flowers, and songbirds, squirrels, and mice eat their seeds. Along with deer, snowshoe hares also like their sprouts. Eastern screech owls, wood ducks, pileated, downy, and hairy woodpeckers and common flickers nest in their cavities. Prairie warblers like to build their open nests in red maples three to six feet high.

Cattle and horses aren’t so fond of red maples because their leaves, particularly if they are wilted or dead, are toxic to them especially in summer and late fall.

But why are they called “red” maples? Nancy Ross Hugo in her delightful book Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees says that they were probably named for their flowers.

Donald Culross Peattie in A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America gives a more nuanced and poetic explanation, mentioning their red leaf stems in summer and their color in fall.

Even the burl on a young red maple is reddish-orange

Even the burl on a young red maple is reddish-orange

“In winter,” he writes, “the buds are red, growing a brilliant scarlet as winter ends, the snow begins to creep away, and the ponds to brim with chill water and trilling frog music… no other tree quite equals them at this season in quality or intensity of color… The flowers too are generally red, sometimes yellow, and, minute though they are, they stand out brilliantly.” Even their early leaves, when still small, are scarlet “as they unfold from their fanwise crumpling in the bud.” So too, are those deep red samaras dangling from the trees in May.

All in all, red maples celebrate the color red throughout the year.


All photos in this column are by Dave Bonta. Click on them to see larger versions on Flickr.

Flowering Trees of Spring

Last spring was wonderful for those of us who admire the blossoms of deciduous forest trees. The heat wave at the end of March brought out many flowering trees two weeks earlier than usual. Continual cold throughout April and early May kept them in their blossoming stage for weeks instead of days which gave me plenty of time to admire what is normally only a brief phenomenon.

First to bloom were the red maple trees, Acer rubrum. On March 29 they were covered with red or orange flowers or sometimes both, growing in dense clusters along the branches. The showier flowers are the deep red male or staminate flowers that feature long scarlet stamens while the pistillate or female flowers are often orange and yellow. Their sweet odor draws in the early pollinating insects even on the coolest days.

As the deep crimson, opening leaves appeared, the blossoms also deepened in color. Two weeks later they were replaced by dangling, wine-red, green-stemmed, V-shaped, twin fruits which turned the trees into autumnal-like torches. Never had I seen such a burden of maple keys, but I assumed that the unseasonably warm weather during blossoming time had attracted more pollinating insects than usual.

Three days after the first red maples blossomed, they served as a backdrop for the best and longest display of flowering shadbush that I can remember. Every tree was enveloped in a cloud of drooping, long-petaled, white blossoms, and we discovered that we had dozens of this showy, small tree along our trails.

Black Gum Trail, which winds through the mature deciduous forest on Laurel Ridge, was especially beautiful so I devoted one morning–April 10–to celebrating its display of shadbush. I found many trees of all shapes and sizes with blossoms at all stages of development from just-opened to past their prime and already leafing out.

Those leaves were a bronzed, purplish-brown color, which makes the shadbush on our mountain Amelanchier laevis, or smooth shadbush, according to William Carey Grimm’s The Trees of Pennsylvania. This species grows throughout our state, particularly in the mountains. Amelanchier canadensis, the most common shadbush in the commonwealth, has pale greenish young leaves covered with long, pale, silky hairs.

Shadbush, so-named because it blooms the same time that shad returns to eastern coastal rivers from the sea, is also called “serviceberry,” “sarviss,” or “sarvissberry.” Some experts say that is because it bloomed when the first circuit preachers were able to reach the backwoods settlements in early spring to hold church services.

But naturalist/writer Donald Culross Peattie disagrees. In his A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, he claims that “sarviss” is Elizabethan English for the Latin word “sorbus” given to a fruit that closely resembles that of “sarvissberry.”

The fruit of shadbush gives it still other names–“Juneberry” and “shadberry”–for the dark purple fruits that appear in June. They are so relished by 50 species of birds such as cardinals, robins, cedar waxwings, ruffed grouse, and bluebirds, as well as bears, deer, raccoons, foxes, opossums, and other fruit-eating mammals, that I have yet to find one berry on our mountain. But during a late June trip to West Virginia, I tasted my first serviceberry. No doubt it was A. canadensis, which is not as tasty as A.laevis because it was bland.

Native Americans picked and dried the berries of all four species of shadbush that grow in Pennsylvania. They were also sold in Philadelphia’s markets in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Pennsylvania wild food guru, the late Euell Gibbons, specialized in making shadbush pies, muffins and sauce, and canning, freezing and drying the berries for later use.

But it is for their dainty, star-like flowers that I celebrate these trees, blooming, as they do, while most of the forest still wears its gray winter coat.

On the same day the first shadbush bloomed–April 2–the wild black cherry trees began to leaf out. Unlike the red maples and shadbush, the cherry trees (Prunus serotina) send out their shiny, green leaves before their sprays of white flowers so that it is difficult to see them on the trees. But usually the forest is permeated with the cloying odor of them in late April, a signal to me that the cherry trees are in flower. Furthermore, they produce an abundance of blossoms, many of which are jettisoned during storms, which gives me a close-up look at them. Later, in August or early September, the keening cries of cedar waxwings are a signal that the cherries are ripe. Then the forest floor is covered with purple-black fruits, providing a feast for wild animals and birds on Sapsucker Ridge where our mature black cherry forest grows.

I always find piles of bear scat stuffed with cherry pits beneath the trees but have not yet caught the bears eating cherries. That may be just as well because Peattie claims that years ago, when bears were plentiful in the Appalachians (Peattie was writing back in the 1940s when bears had almost disappeared from most of the area)…”The ripening of the cherry crop was a signal for an ursine congregation. The cubs of the year learned to climb the trees by following their mothers up them to reap the wild cherry harvest. ‘Cherry bears’ were considered especially mettlesome and best left strictly alone.”

Humans, too, once appreciated the fruit. Also known as “rum” or “whisky cherry” trees, Appalachian pioneers made a drink called cherry bounce from the cherry juice. The most famous Appalachian pioneer of all–Daniel Boone–found a more morbid use for the trees. The wood makes splendid caskets and, as an old man, he built several of them to sleep in. He gave away all but his last one to poor people who needed a final resting place.

The flowering dogwood trees (Cornus florida) were also splendid last spring. Their first flowers appeared along Greenbrier Trail on April 14, while the shadbush was still in bloom, and lasted well into May. The white petals that we admire are really modified leaves surrounding the true greenish bunch of small, tubular flowers in the middle. Those leaves, called “bracts,” are signals to pollinating insects that the green flowers contain nectar.

The dogwood put on their best show over on our seven-year-old clearcut. A parade of white trees spilled down over what we formerly called Clearcut Knoll and hastily renamed Dogwood Knoll.

Luckily the loggers could think of nothing to do with them and so most of the dogwoods, along with the crooked, maimed, or otherwise worthless trees and shrubs, such as witch hazel, on what was then the logger’s property, were not cut.

But Native Americans once made a red dye from dogwood roots that they used to color bald eagle feathers and porcupine quills, and during the Civil War tea brewed from the roots was given to the soldiers of the Confederacy as a substitute for quinine to fight malaria.

The black birch trees also blossomed by mid-April. Three-to-four-inch long catkins, covered with purplish-yellow male blossoms, dangle from the branches while one-half inch to one-inch-long, erect, stalkless, female catkins covered with pale green blossoms grow upright on the same tree branches with the male blossoms.

Black birch trees (Betula lenta) are also called “cherry birches” because their bark looks like the mahogany red bark of cherry trees and “sweet birches” because of their sweet sap from which birch beer is brewed. Wintergreen oil was once extracted from their bark by country dwellers, who wastefully chopped down 100 cherry saplings into chips to make one quart of the oil. Today wintergreen oil is manufactured synthetically from wood alcohol and salicylic acid, but a foolproof way to distinguish black birch branches from black cherry branches is to scrape the bark from a small branch and sniff. The wintergreeen odor is always detectable.

By April 17 oak trees of all species–red, white, black and chestnut–were in tender leaf, dangling their long, stringy, fringe-like, male catkins from the same new shoots as the few-flower clusters of stalked, yellow, female flowers. Each grows from the axils of emerging leaves. Sitting under my favorite, 200 year-old white oak tree after a storm, I found scores of the shoots on the ground covered with small, downy, greenish-gold white oak leaves and their attendant greenish-gold male flowers.

White oaks (Quercus alba) are my favorite oak species, a species which Peattie calls the “king of kings… The fortunate possessor of an old white oak owns a sort of second home, an outdoor mansion of shade and greenery and leafy music.” I often sit below my “outdoor mansion” and watch the antics of chipmunks and squirrels and even raccoons and deer on occasion. Its huge trunk has several crevices that perfectly fit my back so that it is indeed a “sort of second home.”

So many trees blossomed abundantly last spring that even those that I had never noticed before, such as a black haw growing on top of the rocky bank beside the Far Field Road, put on a show. Heads of creamy flowers covered this small member of the Viburnum genus–Viburnum prunifolium. Also called “stagbush,” “nannyberry,” “sheepberry,” and “sweet haw,” its sugary fruits are favorites of many birds and mammals. After identifying it and adding it to our list of trees for our property, I wondered if I had merely overlooked it in previous springs or whether it was blossoming for the first time.

Another understory tree, one that blankets the forest floor in the black cherry forest, is the striped maple (Acer pensylvanicum). Unlike red maples, striped maples unfurl dazzling-bright, shiny green leaves before producing four-to-six-inch long strings of drooping, brilliant yellow, showy, bell-like flowers. Male and female flowers usually grow in different clusters on the same tree and the male flowers are slightly more showy than the females’.

I’ve always thought of striped maples as the easiest of all trees to identify no matter what the season. The “striped” refers to their green bark which breaks as their stems expand, revealing a white underlayer that gives the bark a striped appearance. One of their alternate names, “goosefoot,” refers to the shape of their leaves, while “moosewood” signals that their bark is favored by moose as well as rabbits, deer and beavers.

It took the warm days of late May to bring out the flowers of tulip and black locust trees. Like striped maples, tulip-tree flowers emerge after the leaves. Cup-shaped, showy, and erect, the yellow, orange and greenish flowers look almost tropical in their lushness. Those blossoms contain both male and female parts, which makes them, in botanical parlance, perfect flowers. It’s easiest to see the flowers on trees growing out in the open, as one does at the edge of the woods near our house. They “hold the sunshine in their cups,” Peattie writes, “setting the whole giant tree alight.”

A member of the Magnolia family, tulip-trees (Liriodendron tulipfera) are the tallest hardwood trees in North America. Pioneers constructed canoes from their trunks, hence their alternate name “canoe wood.” Their nearly white sapwood earned them the sobriquet “whitewood.” Still another name is “popple.” They also earned the distinction, during the gypsy moth onslaught here 18 years ago, as the only tree species whose leaves were not eaten by the ravaging caterpillars.

Tulip-trees have always been favorites of mine because, like striped maples, they are easy to identify by their distinctive, saddle-shaped leaves, tulip-shaped flowers, cone-shaped fruit, and tall, limbless, straight trunks.

But outstripping even the tulip-tree blossoms in beauty last spring were the black locust trees. They put on the best display we have seen in the 27 years we have lived here. Black locusts, Robinia pseudoacacia, are also called “honey locusts” because of their sweet smell that used to draw in droves of honeybees before most of the wild ones were killed off by mites. In fact, locust honey is still a favorite with honey fanciers, and beekeepers always rejoice when the locust flowers are abundant. Their drooping clusters of white, fragrant, pea-like blossoms are also perfect like those of the tulip-trees.

They line the edge of First Field and so for several days we enjoyed their beauty both at a distance and close at hand. As one early naturalist wrote, “It is as if a white cloud rested on the treetop, heavy with perfume and alive with bees. One rarely sees, even in spring, a sight more beautiful. It is the supreme moment in the life of this tree.”

My own supreme moment with the trees last spring occurred at the Far Field which wore a fringe of flowering black locust trees. On a large tree covered with blossoms an indigo bunting sang. As if that blue and white vision were not enough, a male cerulean warbler flew in, singing and foraging for insects among the locust flowers. He flitted from branch to branch for the hour I sat nearby watching, presenting me with the perfect ending to a spring which will forever remain in my memory as a banner year for deciduous tree flowers.