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.

The Tree of Great Peace

Sunset through white pine, by Cheryl Platt (Creative Commons Attribution licence)

The Iroquois called it the “Tree of Great Peace.” Its cluster of five needles to a bundle represented the five nations of the Iroquois and its spreading roots, reaching east, north, west, and south were the roots of peace that extended to all peoples.

We call this tree, more prosaically, eastern white pine — Pinus strobus — meaning “gum-yielding pine tree,” and “white” referring to its light-colored wood.  It’s also been called sapling, pumpkin, soft, northern, and Weymouth pine, the latter name a tribute to Thomas Viscount Weymouth who, in 1605, had eastern white pine planted on his Longleat estate in England.

And what a tree it was then, providing towering, straight ships’ masts for the British Navy.

“Much of Pennsylvania… — so it has been asserted — was one vast White Pine forest,” Donald Culross Peattie wrote in his comprehensive A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America.  Loggers sent tremendous rafts of eastern white pine down both the Delaware and Allegheny rivers.  Those trees cut in the 1760s in northeastern Pennsylvania produced 120-foot-long logs four feet or more in diameter for British ships.  As colonists pushed westward, often in pursuit of eastern white pine, the longest haul of rafted logs in the nation began in pine forests 200 miles north of Pittsburgh and arrived 2000 miles later in New Orleans.

old-growth white pine in Pennsylvania's Delaware State Forest

Old-growth white pine in Pennsylvania's Delaware State Forest, by Nicholas T (Creative Commons Attribution licence)

Eastern white pine, Peattie wrote, was “the most generally useful wood our country has ever possessed.” Covered bridges, homes, flooring, furniture, and shingles were made of eastern white pine.  Arguments, some lethal, over who had the right to cut and sell eastern white pine trees, often erupted between the British and their colonial subjects before and even during the Revolutionary War.  In fact, disputed ownership of these profitable trees was one of the reasons for the war.

Native Americans had different uses for eastern white pines. The Iroquois mixed the white resin that seeps out of tree wounds with beeswax to seal canoe seams and waterproof their baskets.  Several tribes, especially the Algonquians, used the inner bark or cambium of the trees, which could be dried and pounded into a flour-like substance, as emergency food.  For this reason, the Iroquois called the Algonquians “Adirondack,” meaning “tree-eater.”  The Ojibwa stewed young, first-year cones with meat to sweeten it, and the Chippewa treated gangrenous wounds with the tree’s sap.  All the tribes enjoyed the white pine’s tasty, nutritious seeds.

Ranging from Newfoundland to Manitoba in Canada, south through the northern states from Maine to Pennsylvania and on through the Appalachians to Georgia, and west to Iowa, eastern white pine is the largest native pine species east of the Rocky Mountains.  Logging operations, moving ever south and westward, decimated the great pine forests over the centuries.  Although in 1875 Pennsylvania led our nation in wood production, which was mostly eastern white pine, by 1900 that tree was depleted.  Of course, the almost legendary eastern white pines, those that once soared straight and as high as 80 feet to the first branch, had long been gone.

Today, only a very few of the old groves are left.  Heart’s Content in the Allegheny National Forest has one eastern white pine tree that is 167 feet high and 4 feet 2 inches in diameter.  But Cook Forest State Park hosts the 183.6 foot-tall Longfellow Pine, which was climbed and measured by tape drop by the Eastern Native Tree Society, which is “devoted to the celebration of trees and to the accurate measurement and documentation of tall, historical, significant trees and forests,” according to their website.

New growth on a white pine, by scarlatti2004 (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

The park also contains 110 eastern white pines that are 150 feet tall — the largest collection of such trees in the northeastern United States.

Once the deciduous trees drop their leaves, the scattering of eastern white pines in our forest is more noticeable.  Several loom above even the tallest of our deciduous trees, and when January snow covers their soft, flexible, bluish-green needles, they are arguably the loveliest trees on our mountain.  The 4- to 7-inch-long drooping cones they produce, their thin, rounded scales festive with resin-frosted tips, make ideal Christmas tree and wreath decorations.  Our three sons, when they were young, even tried to improve them with paint before hanging them on our tree.

A mature eastern white pine — and we have several along our road and trails — produces from 200 to 300 cones a year, but it takes two years for a cone to develop.  Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree, the bright pinkish-purple female flowers at the top of the tree while the yellow, oval, male flowers are lower down at the base of the season’s new growth of needles.  When the male flowers release their pollen in May in Pennsylvania, the wind carries it in all directions. Peattie claimed that “When the male flowers bloomed in these illimitable pineries, thousands of miles of forest aisle were swept with the golden smoke of this reckless fertility, and great storms of pollen were swept from the primeval shores far out to sea and to the superstitious sailor seemed to be ‘raining brimstone’ on the deck.”

Maturing green cone of a white pine, by Eric in SF (Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence)

At first, the cones are green and tightly closed, but during their second season, they ripen to a light chestnut-brown and open to release their ¼ inch-long, winged, wind-dispersed seeds.  The seeds travel 200 feet within a stand of trees but more than 700 feet in the open.  White-footed mice and red-backed voles also grow new trees by burying their caches of seeds beneath leaf litter but on top of the kind of mineral soil that encourages the seeds to sprout.

Eastern white pine sprouts well after a fire or logging, but it will also sprout in shade, although it will only thrive and grow if there is a break in the canopy.  A seedling grows slowly at first, taking as long as ten years before reaching five feet in height.  But then it speeds up, and a 30-year-old tree can be 60 feet tall with a two-foot diameter trunk.  I’ve been watching a seedling tree grow inside our three-acre, deer exclosure and another that we fenced in our front yard. The former is six years old and only two-and-a-half feet tall.  The front yard tree is 14-years-old and 11-feet tall.

We would have many more eastern white pine trees if it weren’t for the deer.  Our son Dave planted 50 seedlings from the Game Commission a decade ago, and all were browsed to the ground by whitetails.  Porcupines, squirrels, and snowshoe hares eat eastern white pine bark.  Mice, voles, chipmunks, squirrels, and a bevy of songbirds — nuthatches, chickadees, pine siskins, grosbeaks, and crossbills — relish their seeds.  Red squirrels, for instance, can strip 45 seeds from a cone in two minutes.  They also use white pine branch crotches as pantries, according to Charles Fergus, who wrote in his excellent book Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, “I have watched red squirrels carry mushrooms — the red-and-white fruiting bodies of Russula emetica — into white pines and hang them in branch crotches for storing.”

Osprey nest in white pines, Umbagog Lake, NH, by Shannon and Christine Fournier (Creative Commons BY-NC licence)

Many bird species nest in eastern white pine.  I recall trying to see a crow’s nest high in the dense branches of our largest white pine years ago and early last spring I watched from my backyard as crows gathered twigs which they carried to an eastern white pine tree halfway up Laurel Ridge. Another year I frequently flushed a great horned owl from an eastern white pine tree that still had a few feet to grow before it topped the tallest deciduous trees.  Other owl species, hawks, common ravens, blue jays, flycatchers, grosbeaks, finches, warblers, and mourning doves also use them to raise their young.

White pine blister rust (Cronartium ribicola), which came from European nursery stock, was a major killer of eastern white pines until it was discovered that the fungus spent part of its life cycle on gooseberry or currant shrubs.  Once those shrubs were kept a quarter mile away from eastern white pines, the fungus could not harm them.  When we lived in rural Maine back in the mid-1960s, I remember that it was against the law to plant currant and gooseberry shrubs anywhere.

The white pine weevil (Pissodes strobe), a native species, only attacks pines growing in full sunlight, and lay their eggs in growing buds where its larvae eat and kill the leading shoot.  But the tree survives because its side buds develop, although it won’t be a perfect, pagoda-shaped tree.

Eastern white pine doesn’t tolerate air pollution, heat, drought or salt.  But once it is 60 feet high and has rough bark on its lower trunk, it can survive low- and even moderate-severity fires.

Harvest moon over white pines, by : rebecca : (Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence)

Lying beneath a large eastern white pine is sheer bliss.  Because it sheds half its needles every fall, they provide a soft covering over the hard ground.  It is there I listen to the wind soughing in the pines and am perfectly content.  Unlike my boys, I never felt compelled to climb the ladder-like limbs of an eastern white pine, but each boy seemed to grow in stature, at least in his own eyes, once he surveyed his world from his lofty perch.

In Maine and Michigan, eastern white pine is the state tree.  Ontario honors it as its provincial tree.  Now that our state tree — eastern hemlock — is being destroyed by another foreign invader, the hemlock woolly adelgid, I propose that we consider changing our state tree to the eastern white pine. It is, after all, an important part of Pennsylvania’s natural and historical history.

Click on photos to go to their pages on Flickr and view larger sizes.