Tree a Week: Maple

Characteristics and Interesting Facts

  • Maple is the common name for any member of the genus Acer, a group of about 125 species of mostly deciduous trees and shrubs in the Northern Hemisphere. Most maples are native to Asia, but several species also occur in North America, northern Africa and Europe.
  • Most species grow to 10 to 40 meters in height. There are also shrubs that are less than ten meters tall. Maple trees can survive more than 300 years under appropriate climate conditions.
  • Numerous maple cultivars (cultivated plants that have been selected and given a unique name) have been selected for particular characteristics and can be propagated only by grafting. Japanese maple (A. palmatum) alone has over 1,000 cultivars, most selected in Japan, and many of them no longer propagated or not in cultivation in the western world. Some cultivars are used widely for the art of bonsai.
  • The word Acer is derived from a Latin word meaning “sharp” (referring to the characteristic points on the leaves)

Uses

  • Many Acer species have bright autumn foliage, including bright red, orange, and yellow colors. Tourism during the autumn to areas with such foliage can be very popular, and many countries have leaf-watching traditions. In Japan, the custom of viewing the changing color of maples in the autumn is called “momijigari.”
  • Some of the larger maple species have valuable timber, particularly sugar maple (hard maple) in North America, and sycamore maple in Europe. Maple is one of the most popular trees for hardwood lumber but is also considered a tonewood, or a wood that carries sound waves well, and is used in numerous instruments such as guitars and drums.
  • Some maple wood has a highly decorative wood grain, known as flame maple and quilt maple. This condition occurs randomly in individual trees of several species, and often cannot be detected until the wood has been sawn, though it is sometimes visible in the standing tree as a rippled pattern in the bark.

Maple Syrup

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum), also called hard maple or rock maple, is tapped for sap, which is then boiled to produce maple syrup. Syrup can be made from closely-related species as well, such as the black maple, but their output is generally considered inferior.

The most important factor in the production is the weather. The night temperatures should drop below freezing point to about -6 ° C . The day temperature should be around +4° C, so that the sap can run easily. Cloud cover slows the sap running and snow covering on the ground prevents budding, thus prolonging the sugar season.

Maple trees need to be at least 30-year-old, to be tapped for their sap. About 40 litres of sap is produced per season, from a 40-year-old tree. 1 litre of maple syrup can be produced from 30 to 50 litres of sap so roughly 1 litre of final syrup per mature tree. The tree is not harmed in any way when tapping the syrup, as only 10% of the sap is harvested from the total tree production of sap.

However, utilising a rocket stove or piggybacking onto a stove that warms your house to efficiently boil the sap could be beneficial here. It takes an enormous amount of energy to boil down 40L of sap to 1L.

Identification

Leaves: Maples are distinguished by opposite leaf arrangement. The leaves in most species are palmately veined and lobed, with three to nine veins each leading to a lobe, one of which is in the middle.

Bark: Young maple trees have a smooth bark that becomes brown, rough and corky as they grow older. There are longitudinal furrows on the barks.

Flower: Maple flowers have five sepals, five petals about one to six mm long, 12 stamens about six to ten mm long. They flower in late winter or early spring, in most species with or just after the leaves appear.

Seeds: The distinctive fruit are called “samaras” or “maple keys.” These seeds occur in distinctive pairs, each containing one seed enclosed in a “nutlet” attached to a flattened wing of fibrous, papery tissue. They are shaped to spin as they fall and to carry the seeds a considerable distance on the wind. Seed maturation is usually in a few weeks to six months of flowering, with seed dispersal shortly after maturity.

Further Reading

Japanese Maples are some of the most stunning trees around and my favourite tree by far. I’ve had a few cultivars in my garden and visited many regions with flaming mountains full of dazzling maples. For anyone interested in Japanese Maples, I highly recommend checking out this book.

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