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Trees With Winged Seeds - Maples, Ashes, Elms

( Originally Published 1927 )


A single genus, acer, includes from sixty to seventy species, widely distributed over the Northern Hemisphere. A single species goes south of the equator, to the mountains of Java. All produce pale close-grained, fairly hard wood, valued in turnery and for the interior finish of houses. The clear sap of some American species is made into maple sugar.

The signs by which we may know a member of the maple family are two: opposite, simple leaves, palmately veined and lobed; and fruits in the form of paired samaras, compressed and drawn out into large thin wings. No amount of improvement changes these family traits. No other tree has both leaves and fruits like a maple's.

The distribution of genus acer is interesting. The original home of the family is in the Far East. In China and Japan we may reckon up about thirty indigo maples, while only nine are native to North America. Of these, five are in the eastern half of the continent, three in the West, and one grows indifferently on both sides of the Great Divide.

The Sugar Maple Acer saccharum, Marsh.

The sugar maple is economically the most important member of its family in this country. As an avenue and shade tree it is unsurpassed. It is the great timber maple, whose curly and birds-eye wood is loved by the cabinet-maker; and whose sap boiled down, yields maple sugar—a delicious sweet, with the distinctive flavor beloved by all good Americans. In October the sugar maple paints the landscape with yellow and orange and red. Its firm broad leaves, shallowly cleft into five lobes, are variously toothed besides. The flowers open late, hanging on the season's shoots in hairy yellow clusters. The key fruits are smooth and plump, with wings only slightly diverging. They are shed in midsummer.

Hard maple wood outranks all other maple lumber, though the curly grain and the bird's-eye are accidental forms rarely found. Flooring makes special demands upon this wood. Much is used in furniture factories; and small wares—shoe lasts, shoe pegs and the like—consume a great deal. As fuel, hard maple is outranked only by hickory. Its ashes are rich in potash and are in great demand as fertilizer in orchards and gardens.

The living tree, in the park, on the street, casting its shade about the home, or glowing red among the trees of the woods, is more valuable than its lumber. Slow-growing, strong to resist damage by storm, clean in habit and beautiful the year round—this is our splendid rock maple. Rich, indeed, is the city whose early inhabitants chose it as the permanent street tree.

The Black Maple

A. nigrum, Michx.

The black maple is so like the sugar maple that they are easily confused, but its stout branchlets are orange-colored, the leaves are smooth and green on both sides, scantly toothed, and they droop as if their stems were too weak to hold up the blades. The keys spread more widely than those of the sugar maple.

The black maple is the sugar maple of South Dakota and Iowa. It becomes rarer as one goes east. It is an admirable lumber tree, as well as a noble street and shade tree.

Two soft maples are found in the eastern part of the country, their sap less sweet, their wood softer than the hard maples, and their fitness for street planting correspondingly less.

The Red Maple

A. rubrum, Lima.

The red maple is a lover of swamps. It thrives, however, on hillsides, if the soil be moist; and is planted widely in parks and along village streets. In beauty it excels all other maples. In early spring its swelling buds glow like garnets on the brown twigs (see illustrations, Pages 198-199) . The opening flowers have red petals, and the first leaves, which accompany the early bloom, are red. In May the dainty flat keys, in clusters on their long, flexible stems, are as red as a cock's comb, and beautiful against the bright green of the new foliage. In early September in New England, a splash of red in the woods across a swamp, is sure to be a scarlet maple that suddenly declares its name. Against the green of a hemlock forest these maples show their color like a splash of blood. The tree is gorgeous.

In winter the lover of the woods, re-visiting the scenes of his summer rambles, knows the scarlet maple by the knotty, full-budded twigs which gleam like red-hot needles set with coral beads, against the clean-limbed, gray-trunked tree. The red maple never quite forgets its name.

As a street tree, it makes rapid progress when it once becomes established, though it is apt to stand still for a time after being transplanted. Its branches are short, numerous, and erect, making a round head, admirably adapted to the resistance of heavy winds. It is particularly suited to use in narrow streets.

The Soft Maple

A. saccharinum, Linn.

The soft maple or silver maple (see illustration, page 199) has a white-lined leaf, cleft almost to the midrib and each division again deeply cut. It is quick and ready to grow, and has been widely planted as a street tree, especially in prairie regions of uncertain rainfall. It is one of the poorest of trees for street planting, because it has a sprawling habit and weak brittle wood. The heavy limbs have great horizontal spread, and are easily broken by ice and windstorms. When planted on streets, they require constant cutting back to make them even safe. Thick crops of suckers rise from the stubs of branches, but the top thus formed is neither beautiful nor useful.

Wier's weeping maple, a cut-leaved, drooping variety of this silver maple, is often seen as a lawn tree, imitating the habit of the weeping willow.

The Oregon Maple

A. macrophyllum, Pursh.

The Oregon maple grows from southern Alaska to Lower California, along the banks of streams. The great leaves, often a foot in diameter, on blades of equal length, are the distinguishing marks of this stout-limbed tree, that grows in favorable soil to a height of a hundred feet. In southern Oregon it forms pure forest, its huge limbs forming magnificent, interlacing arches that shut out the sun and make a wonderful cover for ferns and mosses far below. The wood of this tree is the best hard-wood lumber on the West Coast.

The Vine Maple

A. circinatum, Pursh.

The vine maple reminds one of the lianas of tropical woods, for it has not sufficient stiffness to stand erect. It grows in the bottom lands and up the mountain sides, but always following water-courses, from British Columbia to northern California. Its vine-like stems spring up in clusters from the ground, spreading in wide curves, and these send out long, slender twigs which root when they touch the ground, thus forming impenetrable thickets, often many acres in extent.

The leaf is almost circular and cut into narrow equal lobes around the margin; green in midsummer, it changes to red and gold in autumn, and the woodsman, almost worn out with the labor of getting through the maze these trees form, must delight, when he stops to rest, in the autumn glory of this wonderful ground cover.

These little maples lend a wonderful charm to the edges of forest highways in the Eastern states. Like the horn-beams, hazel bushes, and ground hemlock, they are lovers of the shade; and they fringe the forest with a shrubbery border.

The Striped Maple

A. Pennsylvanicum, Linn.

The striped maple is quickly recognized by the pale white lines that streak in delicate patterns the smooth green bark of the branches. The leaves are large and finely saw-toothed, with three triangular lobes at the top, The yellowish bell-flowers hang in drooping clusters, followed by the smooth green keys, in midsummer. This tree is called "Moosewood, for moose browse upon it.

The shrubbery border of parks is lightened in autumn by the yellow foliage of this little tree, and in winter the bark is very attractive. "Whistlewood" is the name the boys know this tree by, for in spring the bark slips easily, and they cut branches of suitable size for whistles.

The Mountain Maple

A. spicatum, Lam.

The mountain maple is a dainty shrub with ruddy stems, large, three-lobed leaves, erect clusters of yellow flowers and tiny brown keys. It follows the mountains from New England to northern Georgia, and from the Great Lakes extends to the Saskatchewan.

he Dwarf Maple

A. glabrum, Torr.

The dwarf maple ranges plentifully from Canada to Arizona and New Mexico. Its leaves, typically three-lobed and cut-toothed, vary to a compound form of three coarse-toothed leaflets. The winged keys are ruddy in midsummer, lending an attractive dash of color to the woods that border high mountain streams.

Very common in cultivation are the Japanese maples—miniature trees, bred and cultivated for centuries, wonderful in the variations in form and coloring of their leaves. Tiny maple trees in pots are often very old. Some leaves are mere skeletons.

The Japanese people are worshippers of beauty and they delight particularly in garden shows. In the autumn, when the maples have reached perfection, the populace turns out in holiday attire to celebrate a grand national fête. A sort of æsthetic jubilee it is, like the spring jubilee of the cherry blossom To each careful gardener who has patiently toiled to bring his maples to perfection, it is sufficient, reward that the people make this annual pilgrimage to view them.

The Box Elder

A. Negundo, Linn.

The box elder is the one maple whose leaves are always cleft to the stem, making it compound of irregularly toothed leaflets. The clusters of flattened keys, which hang all winter on the trees, declare the kinship of this tree to the maples.

Fast-growing, hardy, willing to grow in treeless regions, this tree has spread from its eastern range throughout the plains, where shelter belts were the first needs of the settlers. Pretty at first, these box elders are soon broken down and unsightly. They should be used only as temporary trees, alternating with elms, hard maples, and ashes. Where they are neglected, or continue to be planted, the character of the town or the premises must be cheap and ugly.

The Norway Maple

A. platanoides, Linn.

The Norway maple is counted the best maple we have for street planting. Broad, thin leaves, three-lobed by wide sinuses, cover with a thick thatch the rounded head of the tree. Green on both sides, thin and smooth, these leaves seem to withstand remarkably the smoke, soot, and dust of cities, and also the attacks of insects. The keys are large, wide-winged, set opposite, the nutlets meeting in a straight line. These pale green key clusters are very handsome among the green leaves in summer—the tree's chief ornament until the foliage mass turns yellow in autumn. A peculiarity of the Norway maple is the milky juice that starts from a broken leaf-stem.

The Sycamore Maple

A. pseudo-platanus, Linn.

The sycamore maple is another European immigrant, whose broad leaf is thick and leathery in texture, and pale underneath. Its late-opening flowers are borne in long racemes, followed by the small key fruits which cling to the twigs over winter, making the tree look dingy and untidy. This tree has not the hardiness nor the compact form of the Norway maple, and it is subject to the attack of borers.

It is the "sycamore" of Europe, famed as a lumber and an avenue tree abroad, but with us it proves short-lived, and we have no reason for choosing it. The copious seed production of the far preferable Norway maple puts, it within the reach of all.

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