Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sugar maples

Sad to say, they're in decline. Everyone's favorite tree at this season, sugar maples are declining where we most would like them to be at their best: lining suburban streets. The trees seem most suited to a rural environment. The stresses of suburban living get them down.

What's the problem? Sugar maples are happiest in loose, moist soil. The dry, compacted soils of curbside planting strips disagree with them. More serious problems for sugar maples are urban pollution, road salt, and acid rain. The bottom line: their numbers are falling in this area.

Many writers have commented on the decline of the sugar maple in the suburban northeast. The most poignant account I have seen is in Brian Donahue's book, Reclaiming the Commons. It is Mr. Donahue's peculiar utopian goal that every town should have a community farm. In his book he recounts his experience establishing and running such a farm in a bedroom suburb of Boston. Part of his crop was maple syrup harvested from trees on the suburban streets. As years went by, his maple syrup production dried up because the community's trees were dying off, killed by road salts and automotive pollution:

"During the 1980s sugar maples all over town began disappearing, like the elms half a century before them. By the end of the decade it was as if the maples had never existed --- only a handful remained.... The maples were a casualty of the automotive suburb, and their passing the quest to commute from urban blight to rural sanctuary is self-defeating.... To believe that we can routinely drive great distances to reach an unspoiled landscape full of natural amenities at the end of our journey is a fatal delusion. If we want to live in towns with healthy sugar maples, we simply have to live in them more and drive in and out of them less. We cannot out-commute suburban sprawl."(1)

More problems for sugar maples in our area? Climate change: sugar maples like it cold. The species is often used as the poster-child example of plants that are migrating northward with global warming, as it was in AOL's November 17 report on the latest warming forecast of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.(2)

How about some good news? Plainfield still has some very fine sugar maples. A particularly nice one is at the Van Wyck Brooks house at 563 West 8th Street.

Other good examples are on Watchung Avenue near Colonial Circle, pictured at the top of the page. Sugar maples near 1326 Prospect Avenue, photographed this afternoon, were still making a very attractive display.

A younger tree, photographed three weeks ago, illustrates the fiery brilliance of sugar maple foliage in bright sun.

Maple syrup anyone? European settlers learned about it from Native Americans, for whom it was the primary sweetener. They concentrated sugar maple sap by freezing it and removing the ice or by placing heated stones in it to cause evaporation of water.(3) It takes about 40 gallons of sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup.

The quintessential maple leaf is the sugar maple leaf. It is the leaf represented on the Canadian flag. It closely resembles the leaf of Norway maple. The two species can be distinguished at a glance by their bark. Sugar maple bark forms shaggy, platelike scales. Norway maple bark is shallowly furrowed.

This year's sugar maple foliage season is near its end on Plainfield's streets. Have a look if you haven't already and enjoy the show.

(1) Reclaiming the Commons, Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, Brian Donahue, Yale University Press 1999, pp. 166-171.

(3) A Natural History of North American Trees, Donald Culross Peattie, Houghton Mifflin 2007, p. 356.
Copyright Gregory Palermo

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