Tuesday, April 21, 2015

What's that red stuff all over the ground this time of year?

If you're anything like me, you often wonder about nature around you. (If not, don't even tell me; I'm not sure we can be friends.) Have you ever wondered what that red plant material is that's dotted all over the ground in early spring? If you live in a climate like Michigan's and it's windy where you live today, head outside right now and take a look.

What you are seeing are some of the earliest flowers of spring, the flowers of Acer rubrum and Acer saccharinum. Acer rubrum = red maple. Acer saccharinum = silver maple.

To give you an idea of the timing of the annual red and silver maple flower drops, where I live the crocus are nearly done flowering. The daffodils have been going strong several days, my forsythia just a couple days and today I noticed the first magnolia just starting to break bud.

Red maple flower.
Together with my in-laws, my family is a small, commercial producer of pure maple syrup. Knowing about the Acer species is part of our business. Each year, we invite students to visit us in the maple woods for tours. I always ask each group of visitors if they think maple trees have flowers. Young children usually guess no. Only about a third of the older students and adults realize that maple trees must flower. Very few can describe a maple flower to me — maybe only a few people in the seven years we've been holding formal educational tours.

Of course the answer is yes, maple trees do indeed flower. The flowers are tiny compared to the massive trees and aren't very noticeable until they fall to the ground. While red and silver maple flowers are red, flowers of the sugar maple we primarily tap for syrup are a bright, almost lime green. That may start to sound familiar to you now. You've probably noticed clumps of red or green maple flowers lying on your car hood or sidewalk in spring, or blown to the edge of the driveway. Reds and silvers are the first to flower.

Silver maple flowers.
Whether the maples are red, sugar, black, Norway, silver or another species, all flower so they can then fruit. The fruit of the maple tree is what I grew up calling a whirlygig or helicopter as a kid. Remember how delightful it was to toss a handful of the dry helicopters into the air and watch them twist and twirl toward the earth? That whirling and twirling is the maple seed dispersal system, sending the seeds inside as far from the mother tree as possible.

To a botanist, those helicopters are actually called keys or samara. (I won't judge if you still want to call them helicopters.) Technically, the seed is only the oblong brown seed coat and its contents at the heavy end of the double samara. The whole unit is the maple tree's fruiting body, but again, you can refer to the whole thing a seed we'll know what you mean.
Not-yet-flowered buds of a sugar maple
(Acer saccharum) in our front yard.

As nature begins to wake up from the long winter, it's satisfying to look down and notice the details — the greening grass at our feet, the emerging wild leeks, the narcissus and tulips in our flowerbeds. I also encourage you to look up. See the tree buds swelling, various species beginning to flower, and the red and silver maples just beginning to produce their fruit now that they're dropping their diminutive flowers.

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