The maple trees in Vermont are dying. The price of pure Vermont maple syrup has shot up considerably. It takes a lot of sap to brew a quart of maple syrup, and it only happens one time a year. Some of the larger trees are simply collapsing, falling over, even in New York towns bordering Vermont. Chestnut blight, Dutch elm disease. Kind of makes one wonder. Real Vermont maple syrup, but the maple is a prolific tree of many species growing to massive proportions in a variety of habitats. “Yeah, but Canadian maple syrup isn’t pure Vermont”, you say? Hey, what’s in a name? Anyway, syrup is not the maple’s only claim to fame. Beauty and utility combine to make the maple an extraordinarily lofty being.
The three most prolific maples (acer spp), the red, silver and sugar maples, grow from the Northeast U.S. and southern Canada south to West Virginia and Kentucky, and west beyond the Great Lakes. Maples average between 70 and 120 feet height, and thirty inches in diameter at the trunk. They can grow to large dimensions and spread branches, when not obstructed by other trees, to great lengths. The five-lobed leaf is a familiar sight. The leaves grow in pairs with whirligig, paired seeds emerging from leaf axils. These are called samaras. Depending on species, samaras appear either in the fall or spring. Other varieties of maple include the Norway, striped, big leaf, and the one species in the Western U.S., the Rocky Mountain maple. Several Oriental varieties are mainstays of American gardens, especially the red leafed maples that add such a deeply luscious maroon color to many garden plots. In autumn, these maroon leaves turn a brilliant scarlet, contrasting exquisitely with the oranges and yellows of other maples.
Flowers precede leaves in spring, red clusters on red maples, pendant yellows on Rocky Mountain maples, greenish-yellow on vine maples. The most unique of all the maples is the boxelder, or ashleaf maple (acer negundo), whose leaves are compound (similar to ash and various nut trees), irregularly lobed and toothed. Boxelders are prolific along swamps, waterways, and they are, in many cases, pioneer trees in the Western U.S.
Maple wood, used for woodworking, is close or straight-grained, quilted, wavy, or bird’s eye in texture, white to red, hard or soft, and it is found on everything from dance floors to butcher block counter tops.
Squirrels and chipmunks strip the seeds of wings and eat them or cache many for winter store. Birds build nests from seed or leaf stalks. Many birds prefer the maple as a nesting site. Grosbeaks, chickadees, finches, and nuthatches cruise the maple for seeds, buds and flowers. Porcupine, black bear, rabbit, raccoon, eat bark, twigs, seeds and flowers. Small rodents prefer the seeds. Deer, elk, and moose browse twigs and foliage. Aphids eat maple leaves and excrete a sweet dew digestate that coats leaves with a varnish. Maple leaves, in general, have tough sheaths around them, and they contain tannins that tend to limit ingestion by insects to very few species, although box-elder rollers, larval insects, roll leaf edges around themselves for protection while feeding on boxelder leaves.
Maple bark, although not containing as much tannin as oak, is astringent and is used, in decoction, as an all purpose skin wash for irritated skin and sore eyes. Boxelder inner bark is emetic, and the inner bark of other maples is used for coughs, diarrhea, kidney infections, colds, bronchitis, and as a blood purifier. The pure, watery sap is a spring tonic, and leaf and twig tea can allay nausea.
I have eaten maple flower blossoms in the spring as a trailside nibble, but the most well know food extracted from maples is maple syrup. Although thirty to forty gallons of sap is required to produce one quart of syrup, it is well worth the effort. From January to April spiles (tubes) are inserted into the tree, with bucket beneath, and the raw sap is collected. It is boiled to a thick consistency and readied for the breakfast table.
Maple sap is an important survival water source when stream, pond, or ground water is not easily accessible. Other trees, such as birch and sycamore can also be tapped for sap. Grapevines, when sliced a few feet above the ground, yield a flow of moisture for mouth or container.
The line of boxelders, maybe eight altogether, grew from the pond up the embankment, past the garage and shop and out beyond the barn. It appeared that this line of trees was growing on a water vein that kept their thirst at bay and gave them plenty of the nutrients they would need. Around the farm, red, striped, silver, and sugar maples thrived. One brisk, clear spring morning, three of us walked outside, responding to grunts and a peculiar assortment of barks, screams and whining. The boxelder near the barn contained one very large raccoon. The staring match commenced. We were delighted. Whether he was or not, is another story. All day long he sat in that boxelder and stared. I had used many branches from that tree to make spindles for bow drill fires. And the local opossum frequented that same tree. Popular spot. By nightfall the raccoon still sat and watched us watching him, not moving a muscle. We watched him, he watched us. We got tired, went into the farmhouse, went to sleep. The next morning he was gone. Two days later I was wandering, somewhat drunk on spring, amongst the red maples in the woods surrounding the farm, when I heard a branch crack overhead. Looking up, I spotted a raccoon eating maple blossoms. When he saw me, he stopped. I sought out my two observant friends. The staring match began. It lasted most of the day. Not a muscle moved, not a sound uttered. I guess the moral of this story is: when you see a raccoon in your boxelder tree, do not expect much. And, two, days later, when the same raccoon shows up in your red maple tree do not expect much. Just sit quietly, watch, listen and be still.