How sweet it is! A classic beauty, a cultural icon, and a cash cow for local economies far and wide.
Awbury’s featured tree this month is the Sugar Maple, one of our most useful, beautiful, and ambrosial trees. Let’s “tap” into this quintessential American hardwood.
The Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum) ranges across the Northeast of our continent, seeking cool, moist climates: from the Great Lakes to Appalachia and as far west as Missouri. Also called the Hard Maple, Rock Maple, or Sugartree, it’s quite common in the Philadelphia area, naturally thriving in our forests and also a popular species in landscaping (although their large size and shallow root systems require careful placement so as not to interfere with power and sewer lines).
Sugar Maples will often grow 50 – 70 feet tall; in a crowded wood, they’ll grow straight up with all their branches in a crown at the top, whereas on a spacious lawn they’ll tend to fan out more. You can tell the Sugar Maple from other maples by their leaves, which are all basically the same pointy-lobed shape as the red leaf in Canada’s flag. In Sugar Maples, though, the dips between their five pointy lobes are rounded into a “U” shape, as opposed to other species where this part of the leaf is sharp like a “V”.
While we tend to associate New England with maple syrup, we tap trees here in Pennsylvania, too. In fact, PA is the 7th largest maple-syrup producer in the US, boiling up 164,000+ gallons annually. Fun Fact: it takes 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup (a tapped tree produces 10 – 20 gallons per tap; trees can have up to 3 taps). Nationwide, maple syrup is a $1.58 billion industry, and it’s projected to grow as more consumers seek natural sweeteners over bleached/chemically processed sugars.
People have been tapping Sugar Maples for a long time, before recorded history. Native Americans in the region were doing it way before European settlers landed, and took up the practice themselves. Sugar Maples were also valued for lumber, and have historically been one of the most popular woods for many uses from furniture to flooring, cabinets to kitchenware – even millwork and musical instruments. It’s super hard and dense, durable and workable with a fine grain and light, neutral color that looks great stained or natural.
The Sugar Maple, however, is most known and beloved not for its excellent wood or sticky goodness but for its breathtaking beauty. Perhaps no other tree is as dazzling in fall! Sugar Maple leaves have a great concentration of orange and yellow pigments, and also their high sugar content stimulates the production of “anthocyanins” which are responsible for shades of red and purple that really pop in autumn landscapes. Sugar Maples also tend to lose their leaves slowly, revealing an ever-changing display of vivid colors.
The older the tree, the bolder the fall foliage. In 2021, the city lost a stunning 100 year old Sugar Maple on Belmont Plateau, a victim of time and exposure. But you can still visit one of the area’s most iconic specimens, thriving at Awbury Arboretum, where every fall it becomes a fiery display of red and orange on the lawn of the historic Cope House. What a perfect excuse for a nature walk through Awbury’s gardens, woodlands, and meadows.
🍁Sugar Maples: Five Fast Facts 🍁
- A forest stand of Sugar Maples used to make maple syrup is called a “sugarbush”.
- The oldest Sugar Maple in North America, known as The Comfort Maple, is thought to be 500 years old. It grows in Pelham, Ontario, and measures more than 80 feet tall.
- The Sugar Maple is the state tree of New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. It is also depicted on the state quarter of Vermont, which was issued in 2001.
- As white ash trees have has become threatened by the emerald ash borer in recent years, Sugar Maple wood has increasingly replaced it for baseball bat production.
- “Leaf peeping” (traveling for autumn foliage) is a $30 billion industry across 24 states.
MUCH MORE in author and expert Dan Sardaro’s lovely and lyrical original article – a tribute to the Sugar Maple including personal memories and nostalgia (plus you’ll find some truly “tree-mendous” events and programs to check out, too).
Dan is a novice birder and author of Awbury’s 2022 “Year of Birds” series, 2018 series on Pollinators, “From Wasps to Wind” and 2019’s series on natural fibers. (He is also a former Awbury Arboretum intern.) Read last month’s Local article here.
The Arboretum’s beautiful grounds are open FREE to the public from dawn to dusk, 365 days a year. Maps available for self-guided tours at the main office, located in the Francis Cope House (Tues – Thurs, 10AM – 4PM or by appointment). Dogs on leash welcome — except not in the garden beds, please. Also available as a unique event venue. Learn more at awbury.org; follow on Facebook and Instagram.