October Tree of the Month: Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum) by Mort Schmidt

Clockwise from upper left: Sugar Maple, Red Maple, Silver Maple, Norway Maple. Photos by Mort Schmidt

One of the most valuable hardwoods of the eastern forests, and in October, perhaps the most beautiful is sugar maple, Acer saccharum. Sugar maple is most abundant in fertile, moderately moist, well̆drained soils, and is one of the most popular trees for landscaping.

Most people recognize sugar maple as the leaf depicted on the Canadian flag. Sugar maple has opposite, simple leaves. That is to say that the leaves, twigs, and branches occur directly across from each other, rather than staggered like your foot prints when you walk in the snow. Simple leaves are those that are distributed more or less evenly on the tree, rather than occurring in more or less constant groups of three, five, seven, etc. Sugar maple leaves are approximately 5 inches wide, symmetrical, and have five lobes, with rather small first and fifth lobes. Sugar maple leaves are palmately veined, i.e., they have several primary veins that meet at the stem, the way the fingers in the palm of your hand meet at a central point on your wrist. Pinnately veined leaves, such as oaks, have a primary vein extending from the base to the tip of the leaf, with secondary veins attached to it at various points along its length.

Unlike red maple and silver maple, Acer saccharum leaves have no teeth. The low spots between lobes, i.e., the sinuses or crotches are Ŭshaped, compared to red maple and silver maple, which have have V̆shaped sinuses. You can remember this by reminding yourself that if you eat too much sugar yoȗll lose your teeth, or that sugar maplȇs sinus is shaped like the letter U in sugar. Sugar maple also resembles black maple, Acer nigra, which some botanists regard as the same species. I do not distinguish between them. Sugar maple leaves are similar to those of the non̆native Norway maple, but the latter have shallower sinuses and the stems exude a milky sap when plucked from the tree. Sugar, red, and silver maple leaves produce clear sap. Also unlike sugar maples, some Norway maple cultivars have purple leaves. Of course, sugar maples are famed for their brilliant fall colors. Several trees, including red maple, sweet gum, and scarlet oak have lovely red leaves in Autumn, but only sugar maple has leaves of green, yellow, orange, and red.

Sugar maples grow to be full̆ sized trees with a typical height of 90 feet and a trunk diameter of 3 to 4 feet at maturity. Sugar maples tend to have rounded crowns, often looking like gumdrops on sticks. Immature sugar maples have smooth bark, but the bark develops shallow furrows and divides into plates as the trees mature.

The defining feature of all maples is the presence of paired samaras (wafer̆like seedś that split and flutter to the ground like helicopters. Sugar maple flowers are pollinated by wind, before the emergence of pollinating insects. Subsequently, the flowers are not showy, and consist of pale green tassels better suited to catching wind than to catching an insect̑s attention. According to the Ohio DNR, ̍The long̅pediceled ˽stemmed˾ flowers of sugar maple may be male, female, or perfect ˽male and female within the same flower˾, with all occurring on the same tree,˳˳˳˳̎

Left: sugar maple bark. Photo by Mort Schmidt. Right: sugar maple samaras. Photo from USDA plants database.

We often use the term ̎hardwood̏ for non̆conifers, even though some, such as buckeye, provide soft lumber. But sugar maple really is hard, with a Janka hardness of 1,450 pounds̆force (lbf́ ̆ vastly harder than Ohiȏs softest hardwood, yellow buckeye (350 lbf́, and close to pin oak (1,510 lbf́, according to Wood̆Database.com. At the lumberyard, sugar maple and black maple are sold
as ̎hard maplȅ or ̎rock maplȅ, while red maple (950 lbf́ and silver maple (700 lbf́ are classified as ̎soft maplȅ.

Because of maplȇs hardness, smoothness, and mild flavor, sugar maple is widely used for kitchenware such as cutting boards and rolling pins. It̑s also used extensively for flooring and furniture. Although sugar maplȇs hardness is similar to oak̑s, its smoothness makes it preferable for turned objects such as chair legs and bowling pins. Historically, white ash was the wood of choice for baseball bats. But now, according to Bats.com, three quarters of the bats used in the major leagues are made of hard maple. Maple is harder and heavier, but less springy. The choice depends on the batteȓs swinging style and strength.

Curly maple, aka ̎fiddleback̏ or ̐ti ger̆striped̏ maple is prized for musical instruments and high̆quality furniture. The cause of curly growth is unknown, and it seems to be most common in healthy, mature trees. Curly figure is generally associated with maple, but occurs in other woods as well. Another desirable wood figure is birdseye, or ̎bird̑s eyȅ. Birdseye apparently results
from buds sprouting out of the trunk, and it is usually sold in the form of veneer. Birdseye is also often associated with, but not limited to maple. Curly and birdseye woods are costly due to their scarcity and the difficulty of working their irregular grain.

Left: curly maple. Right: Birdseye Maple. Photos from Wikipedia

Maple’s limited durability (rot resistance), makes it poorly suited for outdoor use. Like most of the harder woods, sugar maple burns hot, and with its pleasant smell and clean burning, makes excellent firewood. Historically, the ashes of maple wood were valued for the extraction of potash (literally, pot-ash, and the source of the element name “potassium”). Potash is the soluble mixture of compounds leached from ashes to ma per pound as birch, and four times as much as most softwoods.

Of course, sugar maple, also called the “sugar bush”, is the source of maple syrup. Spiles are tapped into the tree in the spring when temperatures are below freezing at night, and above freezing during the day. A tree in the open can produce as much as 20 gallons of sap in a season, and in a forest, as much as 10 gallons. The sugaring season is over when the leaves come out, because the change in chemistry leads to off-tasting syrup. Even the best maple sap is watery, and 30 to 40 gallons of sap must be boiled down to produce one
gallon of maple syrup. Accordingly, even mature trees typically produce under a gallon of finished syrup in a season. Red maple is occasionally tapped for sugar, but the sap is more watery, and the season before the leaves emerge is shorter than for sugar maple. Further boiling turns maple syrup into maple sugar. According to Rebecca Rupp’s Red Oaks & Black Birches, the Science and Lore of Trees, Native Americans enjoyed shaping maple sugar candy into figures shaped like flowers, animals etc., much as is practiced today. Rupp also reports that in earlier days, maple sap was made into an alcoholic beverage.

Maple seeds are edible to humans. Who knew? They’re tastiest when their winged pods are still green. After removing and discarding the wings, the inner seeds can be eaten raw, but their taste is reportedly improved by roasting or boiling. Rodents and some birds also feed on maple seeds.

Maple may also have medicinal value. The Indians made tea from the inner bark to treat coughs and diarrhea. Maple bark extracts and sap were sometimes used to treat sore eyes.

Sugar maple is the state tree of Vermont, New York, and Wisconsin, while the state tree of Rhode Island is a maple of no particular species. As mentioned earlier, the sugar maple is also displayed on the Canadian flag. Some sources claim that Canada’s flag represents no specific maple, but the U-shaped sinuses to me suggest sugar maple. The leaves on the back of the Canadian penny are also maple, but regrettably, they were drawn with an alternate leaf arrangement.

As described in Fred Hageneder’s The Meaning of Trees, Iroquois legend tells of four brothers who were once hunting an enormous bear, finally killing him at the top of a high mountain. After cooking and eating the bear, they looked down to see thousands of sparkling lights below, and realized that they were no longer on the mountain, but in the sky. When the bear came back to life,
the hunters chased him and they became parts of the Great Bear constellation. Every Autumn when they kill him, his blood falls from the heavens and paints the maple leaves red.

Finally, maple is generally seen as a helpful tree, and medieval magicians recommended hard maple stakes for skewering the hearts of vampires. With its lovely fall colors, and protection from vampires as Halloween approaches, there could be no better Tree of the Month for October!

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