Though I technically missed March, my tree of the month for March is the sugar maple (Acer saccharum). March is maple sugaring month here in New England–maple syrup being one of the main reasons that the sugar maple is worthy of being named tree of the month.
Sugar maples are native to North America and can be found from Nova Scotia to Ontario, throughout the northeastern part of the U.S., and in some southern states. Unlike its sister the red maple (Acer rubrum), sugar maples aren’t found in swampy areas; they prefer soil that is rich and well-drained, and are the anchor of the beech-maple forest type. They are shade tolerant tolerant trees but also grow well in the open.
Sugar maples are the quintessential tree for plantings on farms, cemeteries, and streetsides. In the fall, they’re the ones with flaming orange leaves. Mature sugar maples are tall and stately showpieces of the landscape, often reaching heights of 120 feet with a trunk diameter of 5 feet. The bark of a mature tree is gray-brown and deeply channeled, with a tendency to flake or flare at the edges. The leaves are the classic five-lobed maple shape; it’s the sugar maple leaf that turns up on the Canadian flag.
Maple syrup is made from the sap of sugar maples–some people call them sugarbushes. Native peoples taught European settlers how to tap the trees in the spring when the sap starts to “run” in the spring. It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup.
Maple sugar production depends on long periods of cold temperatures and the appearance in the spring of warm days and freezing nights. These conditions affect the sugar content of the syrup and cause the sap to run. Because of the importance of weather to the production of maple syrup, it’s not yet clear what the impact of global warming will be on the maple sugar industry.
In New England and Canada, the overall health of sugar maple trees has declined considerably in recent years. I’ve noticed that in city parks and street plantings, a lot of sugar maples look terrible, with diseased and dying branches that don’t leaf or large portions of the crown dead and fallen. Researchers say that the problem is increasing air pollution and acid rain–sugar maples can’t take it. They also don’t like an abundance of salt, which is used to melt snow on the roads in cold areas.
If you like maple syrup and beautiful autumns, genuflect when you see the March tree of the month: the sugar maple.
Maple bucket photos copyright Caroline Brown.
Tree photos courtesy of the John C. Pair Horticultural Center / Kansas State University Research and Extension.
Trunk and leaf images courtesy of Cornell University Sugar Maple and Research Extentsion Program.