Sunday, October 21, 2007

Poised to inherit the earth: red maples

Red maples are poised to inherit the earth. The sad facts of this change in the fortunes of red maples were laid out by William K. Stevens in a beautifully written article in the New York Times in 1999.(1) As Mr. Stevens tells the story, red maples, aided and abetted by humans, are taking over the forests of the eastern Unites States, displacing oaks as the dominant species.

Plainfield has numerous red maples (Acer rubrum) as street trees. They're most easily spotted in the spring when their early-blooming bright red flowers catch your eye as you pass.

Red maples are also noticeable in the fall, as their foliage turns red or orange before dropping. The trees can be distinguished easily from the other maples likely to be seen in the area. Unlike sugar or Norway maples, red maple leaves usually have only three lobes, not five. Another clue is their red color: red maple leafstalks, buds, samaras (winged seed cases), and flowers all have some red color. Colorful spring flowers and autumn leaves make for an attractive tree. Red maples' biggest problem is a tendency to split in strong winds, a drawback that it shares with several other maple species.

They are also susceptible to heart rot, leading to wind-snapped trunks.(2)

How are people helping red maples usurp the dominant role in eastern forests? In a multitude of ways. European settlers started the process by cutting down all but about two percent of the eastern forests' trees to make farms. Farming moved westward, and eastern farms were largely left to revert to forest by the early twentieth century. Red maples, although usually inhabitants of wet soils, were very adaptable opportunists.(3) They quickly inserted themselves into the newly open spaces.

Oaks and hickories have thick bark that protects them against forest fires. Thin-skinned red maples are much more likely to be killed to the ground by fires. Modern humans almost completely suppressed forest fires, stripping oaks and hickories of their natural advantage over red maples. Fire suppression had a second effect on the tree balance. Fires created open spaces ideal for light-loving oak seedlings. Maple seedlings are much more shade-tolerant than oaks and thrive in the darker environment created by fire suppression.
We did another favor for red maples by making the landscape very friendly to deer. Vastly expanded deer populations suppress oak numbers by eating huge quantities of acorns.

Yet another boon to red maples was our importation of gypsy moths, prodigious eaters of oak leaves. We also introduced Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight, dealing a knockout blow to other red maple competitors. Finally, there is evidence that red maples are more tolerant of acid rain than most tree species. Man's best friend? Dog. Red maple's best friend? Man.

More on chestnuts: Plainfield has a native American!

Robin Gates wrote that we have an American chestnut in Plainfield. You don't have to trek to Monmouth County to see one. Bill Santoriello planted one at 946 Madison Avenue when he owned that property in 1992. The tree was obtained from The American Chestnut Foundation and is now eight or nine inches in diameter at breast height.

Although the tree will eventually succumb to chestnut blight, it might live a long time. A stand of 200 native chestnut trees about 80 years of age was recently discovered in Georgia (4)

The Plainfield tree recently produced a large crop of chestnuts.

Click on photograph to enlarge.

(1) William K. Stevens, Eastern Forests Change Color as Red Maples Proliferate, New York Times, October 22, 1999.

(2) Charles Fergus, Trees of Pennsylvania and the Northeast, Stackpole Books 2002, p. 199.

(3) "Red maple can probably thrive on a wider range of soil types, textures, moisture, pH, and elevation than any other forest species in North America." Russell S. Walters and Harry S. Yawney, Red Maple, in Silvics of North America, U.S. Forest Service,

(4) The American Chestnut Foundation

Copyright Gregory Palermo


Yvonne Federowicz said...

Hello, just noticed your interesting American Chestnut. Hopefully I've correctly identified your location as Plainfield, NJ.
You are located very close to the historical starting place of the chestnut blight, New York City.

Healthy American chestnuts are fairly rare, and we are trying to use them in a breeding project to recreate a blight-resistant chestnut to "bring back" the species.

The Connecticut Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation might be the closest chapter to you and might be very interested in your tree. (PA is also close but CT needs trees more.) You could contact Leila Pinchot at:

Thanks for your very nice pictures!

Gregory said...

Thank you for the contact information. I sent the information about our local American chestnut to as you suggested.