NATURE NOTE - Number 87                                                                  February 28, 2024


This time we are going to talk about a group, or genus, of trees that is common almost everywhere, and most everyone knows something about them - or at least some of their products.

Our Current topic:      Maples

Maples are found all over the Northern Hemisphere in different species all bearing the characteristic tri-lobed, serrated leaf that is centered on the Canadian flag.  For some reason, scouts always seem to know what the Canadian flag leaf looks like, so use it as a starting point.    

While there are several species in North American, we’ll limit our review below to those species commonly found in the footprint of the BRMC – either native or planted.  Use a good tree identification guide or an appropriate app to get more details on identifying maples.  Note that they all have palmately lobed leaves that are toothed or serrated.

  • Red maple (Acer rubra) is the most abundant native tree in Virginia. It is common deep in the forests, newly emerging forests, and yards. The key identifying mark is the scarlet stem of the leaf.  Its bark changes as the tree ages, from a smooth grey to a flaky dark brown.   A favorite non-native species often planted as an ornamental is the small all red-leafed Japanese maple. 
  • Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) has an overall shape that is a little different from the others: the branches start spreading out from the trunk early, giving it a multi-trunk appearance in many cases. The leaves have deeper sinuses and more narrow lobes than other maples. It is often planted as an ornamental.
  • Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) is a native tree that is most abundant in this area in the counties to the west and north of the BRMC (Highland, Allegany), but common enough here as well. This is the colorful maple of New England and Canada. It’s the maple leaf on the Canadian flag and also the state tree of four of our states.  Maple syrup is produced from this species - Canada produces 70% of the world’s maple syrup.  It too is often planted as an ornamental because of its stately appearance and bright autumn foliage.
  • Norway maple (Acer platanoides) is an introduced species commonly found as an ornamental. It’s very similar in appearance to the Sugar maple, but unlike the Sugar maple, the Norway maple will show a white sap when the leaf stem is squeezed or crushed.
  • Stripped maple (Acer pensylvanicum) is a small maple of the deep forest that seldom reaches any size but is common on the scout reservation. Its leaf is the unique “goosefoot” shape, and it is sometimes referred to as Goosefoot maple. The real identifying mark is on the stem of small trees: a white stipe along the green stem.
  • Mountain maple (Acer spicatum) also a small tree of the deep forest, looking similar to Stripped maple.
  • Also, not called a maple, but in the same genus is the common Boxelder (Acer negundo). It has a compound leaf, usually 3-5 leaflets coarsely toothed.

All of these species provide food for a number of birds, squirrels, mice, beaver (the bark), deer (browsing on the twigs) and other wildlife.  Sugar maples are a favorite of the Yellow-bellied sapsucker.  Look for the horizontal rows of small holes in the bark that look like someone used an electric drill to go around the trunk. The sap seeping from these holes attract insects the woodpeckers are seeking.

So what is the sap that maples produce that can be used to produce syrup?  In the fall, starch produced by the leaves is stored in the roots and trunk.  In the early spring, as the tree starts to “come alive” this starch has been converted into sugar and is transported (in the xylem) up the tree by the rising sap.  Once this sap is collected, it is boiled down to produce syrup.  While it’s possible to do this with any maple tree, only the Sugar maple has a high enough sugar content in the sap to make production worthwhile.  While this is done in nearby Highland County, the vast majority is produced in New England and Canada.  In addition to syrup, maple is a major source of lumber for the forest products industry.  Furniture, kitchen cabinets, trim work, basketball court floors, bowling alleys, and other interior products are common uses for higher grade maple.  Lower grade lumber often finds itself used for crating, picture frames, and other products.  The lumber industry classifies maple as “hard maple” (usually Sugar maple) or “soft maple” (usually Red maple). 

Maples are very early bloomers in the spring, often giving the tree a reddish appearance with their tiny flowers.  It won’t be long before you see this (Look up!!) in the top of many maple trees.  The seeds of maples are the familiar “helicopters” we see floating to the ground in the early spring and seem to take root in your yard overnight.  These are called samara and are a good example of wind-born seeds.  


Overall, maples are a big part of our eastern forests, parks, street trees and yard plantings.  It should be easy to find a couple of different species to show your scouts.  One of the things I learned teaching Forestry Merit Badge for many years at Camp Ottari, is that scouts don’t recognize that there are many kinds of trees.  Some are amazed when all the different species are pointed out to them.  So if you don’t want to jump too far into tree identification, start with this one genus and use it as an example of the diversity in one common group (genus) of trees.  Maybe start in your own yard or on your own street and see what you can find.  Summer camp will give you the opportunity to expand greatly into many species.  Just explore a little piece of nature at time, but keep exploring.  You won’t run out of things to find.  Good luck!  And don’t forget that maple syrup for your pancakes.

Thank you reading NATURE NOTES.  Let me know of any thoughts you have.  I do this for you.

Bob Garst   This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.