Blog written by AmeriCorps service member Esmeralda Figueras
In our most recent post in this series, we learned all about Tennessee’s state tree, the Tulip Poplar — but when it comes to state symbols, no tree is more popular than Acer saccharum, the Sugar Maple. It is the state tree of New York, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. Its many-pointed leaf also adorns the national flag of Canada, and the First Nation flag of the Abénakis of Odanak.
Many Sugar Maples across Nashville are at the peak of their gorgeous orange fall color right now! If you know a tree that is vividly yellow-orange at this time of year, there’s a good chance it’s a Sugar Maple.
Sugar Maple gets its name from — you guessed it — the sweet maple sugar people extract from its sap. Sugar tapping was invented by indigenous people in North America centuries, or possibly millenia, ago.
One Lenape story recounts how their ancestors learned to tap the Sugar Maple trees from woodpeckers. The story goes: a long time ago, Axsinaminshi, the Sugar Maple, was suffering, for there were many insects crawling beneath his bark, and he could not bend his many arms to scratch at the itching. He called out to many animals to help him, but only Woodpecker could do anything. Woodpecker worked very hard, and picked away all the bugs under Sugar Maple’s bark. Years later, when there was a drought and Woodpecker was dying from thirst, Sugar Maple told Woodpecker to bore holes in his bark and drink from the sap. Sugar Maple saved Woodpecker’s life, and woodpeckers (and people) have been drinking from the sap ever since.
Another story, from the Iroquois nation, recounts how their ancestors learned to lick the frozen sap from watching red squirrels, which to this day can be observed making small wounds in maple trees and returning to lick the sap drippings after they freeze.
Like the red squirrel, you too can also eat the small drippings and “sap-sicles” that come from small wounds in the tree. You should refrain from actually tapping your Sugar Maples, however, until the trunks are at least 12 inches in diameter, or until the trees are about 40 years old.
Like all maples, Sugar Maples produce samaras — a dry “fruit” that consists of a small seed and a papery wing. These angled wings cause the seeds to spin like the blades of a helicopter on their way to the ground, aiding seed dispersal. The efficient way these samaras rotate has inspired the design of at least one single-bladed miniature aircraft. The next time you’re outside this fall, try throwing a few in the air and see what happens!
Here in Nashville, you won’t see any red squirrels making sap-sicles in the tree branches, but you will see plenty of other animals. Deer, gray squirrels, flying squirrels, turkeys, porcupines, and chipmunks all munch on the leaves, bark, buds, or twigs. A variety of songbirds feast on the seeds, including but not limited to: purple finches, American goldfinches, red-breasted nuthatches, and evening grosbeaks. Woodpeckers and other insect-eating birds forage in its bark. Sugar Maples are one of the preferred species for yellow-bellied sapsuckers, who drill sapwells into trees; these sapwells may then be visited by hummingbirds and bats also in search of a sweet meal. Sugar Maples flower early in the spring, making them an important source of food for pollinators as well.
Sugar Maples are similar in size and shape to Red Maples. This maple species is known for its large size, growing up to 40-80 feet tall with a canopy spread of 30-60 feet. In fall, the leaves turn vibrant colors ranging from golden yellow to a brilliant scarlet. Full or partial sun is best for this tree, along with moist and well drained soil. Like Red Maples, deer browse heavily on young Sugar Maples. Deer guards are recommended if you live in a wooded neighborhood.
A multitude of maples!
These sugary canopy trees are a popular landscaping choice and native to the area, so be on the lookout for them in your neck of the woods! Learn how to get a Sugar Maple of your own through our Neighborhood Planting Captain program, or reach out to email@example.com to put your name on the waitlist for a potential free tree opportunity.
All newly planted trees, regardless of what species they are or who plants them, can be counted towards the citywide goal of planting 500,000 trees by 2050. Planting season is NOW UNDERWAY!