Tree of the month: sugar maple (Acer saccharum)

by Caroline Brown

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.


8 Comments to “Tree of the month: sugar maple (Acer saccharum)”

  1. The sugar maple is a tree for all seasons, as you’ve illustrated. There are at least a couple of commercial maple syrup camps in the province, but several people I know tap trees on their own property. It was one of my favorite winter-to-spring activities when I was a child.

  2. Maples are my favorite trees. There are a lot of varieties in BC but they are rarely able to survive on the Prairies, due to the extreme winters.

    When I lived in Toronto many years ago, the fall was a blaze of color mainly due to the number of maples in the parks and yards. Allen Gardens, downtown Toronto is quite a famous landmark. I still remember vividly walking through there in the fall, the colors and beauty, absolutely breathtaking. ๐Ÿ™‚

    This is probably a silly question but is it harmful to the trees to have the sap extracted for the maple syrup?

  3. Love the Sugar Maples particularly in the autumn when colors show! Missing my Maple syrup season while vacationing in Arizona! I’m new to the Nature Blog Network..pleased to meet you..NG

  4. Sorry I forgot about the maple syrup question, G. No, I have read it doesn’t hurt the tree. I was looking for the source and can’t find it at the moment, but if done correctly installing the tap doesn’t bother the tree. Also, extracting the syrup does not seem to cause problems either. (Whew!)

  5. That was one of the things that I enjoyed about living in Ottawa – sugaring season. I love these maple trees and miss them. They also look gorgeous in the fall when their leaves are changing colour.

  6. Thanks for the answer on this C.

    It just seems rather unnatural although as you said, if done correctly I guess it doesn’t cause permanent damage to the trees. This is an ongoing practise with the same trees being used, year after year, I’m assuming.

    Whew???? Was it a silly question after all LOL. Some of them have got to be, right? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Hy
    i am looking for the garden of aboriginal people making maple syrup in it
    iut it let me kno or email me @

  8. Maple trees are awesome! I love maple syrup, especially on my pancakes…. YUMMM! It takes a while to harvest though.

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