Let’s not forget our Moose Maples
In September we are all awaiting the vibrant color that the fall foliage will bring. The combination of decreasing daylight and the sudden cold weather brought instant changes to the trees this year.
Hiking in the forest especially on mountain trails I come upon sudden splashes of intense crimson or bittersweet orange that literally take my breath away. Even now although the equinox has passed my body feels saturated with these remarkable glimpses of the Red maples that have already caught fire. This tree grows almost anywhere around here and has smooth gray bark. In swamps I call it swamp maple. Along the roads, in fields, or in the forest I pick up its toothed, multicolored or scarlet serrated leaves with their red stems and marvel at nature’s ingenuity. Each leaf is unique, although similar in shape to others of its kind.
The hard Sugar maples for the most part seem a bit behind, although some show promise. Their leaves are similar in shape but have smooth edges and green stems and when these trees begin to lose their chlorophyll their deep golden, orange, scarlet color rivals that of the Red maple in ways any artist would admire. Many of us know that as the leaves stop producing chlorophyll anthrocyanin gives the reddish and purplish color to sumac and Norway maples and turns the other maples brilliant orange, fiery red, lemony yellow or gold. This year the drought has already taken a toll on the trees; many leaves have fallen early. For the past couple of days the wind has brought down drifts of parched leaves that crunch like paper under my feet and I find myself hoping that this trend of wind driven days will not continue…
On this property many years ago I encouraged the Red maples to grow as they pleased knowing that one day I would have a veritable feast for my eyes without even having to leave the cabin. That day has arrived and what I love best is watching the process of subtly shifting shades that intensify day to day. As much as I love to hike into the higher spots on surrounding mountains I take, if possible, even more pleasure from gazing out the window the moment I awaken each morning…
One maple tree escapes most people’s attention even in the fall and that is the Striped maple. Lately when I have been hiking up the mountains I notice that many of these understory trees have leaves that are browning, drooping pitifully, with leaves curling inward due to the drought. Others have turned that pale lemony hue, providing a lovely contrast with browning vegetation on the forest floor. Occasionally, I find fallen branches with leaves attached. Witnessing a “Moose maple” leaf as large as a dinner plate is always a surprise. In the filtered light of the forest these trees seem especially beautiful to me, and I wonder why so few people notice them…
Down below the house I have a striped maple growing by the brook that has managed to survive deer browsing winter after winter. This tree is now about 35 feet high and its spiraling sprays or wings of seeds that cascade below the leaves are the most beautiful of all the maples to my mind. When I gaze at the tree in the fall I am reminded of a bridal veil. In the spring after leafing out bright yellow bell-shaped flowers appear in long, pendulous clusters. Curiously Striped maples are predominantly male trees, that is, their flowers are male. But the species exhibits sexual dimorphism or plasticity. If changes occur in the canopy and new conditions seem favorable, trees can alter sex, bearing female flowers in a single generation.
These trees thrive in shady landscapes as well as providing food and habitat for birds and pollinators. They are native to the forests of eastern North America favoring slopes and ravines because of their need for moisture. They are not long lived trees. And many don’t survive intense browsing by ungulates to make it to adulthood. Mine has multiple trunks, probably a result of browsing. Moose maple has smooth pale green striated bark. One interesting fact is that the smooth skin of Moose maple can photosynthesize in winter.
The leaves of striped maples are the largest of any of the maple family, seven inches across at the base, nearly twice the size of the leaves of sugar maples. The leaves are long-stalked, and have three to five finely-toothed lobes. If you pick up a leaf and compare it to that of another maple it is easy to see the correspondence between the leaves in spite of the size difference. The lime green of the striped maple during the summer is one of the forest’s most vibrant colors. In the fall the pale yellow leaves indicate the absence of anthocyanin that transforms most other maple leaves into a festival of reds and oranges.
Although I haven’t mentioned the Norway, Silver or the Mountain maple I must include them in this general discussion because we also have these trees in Maine. The Silver maple is a coastal tree.
After having spent four winters in New Mexico I am perhaps even more appreciative of this astonishing autumn painting that stretches across the land. Although the golden Cottonwoods along riparian areas in NM are a feast worth seeing, nothing can compare to astounding colors of the trees in our own Maine woods.