red maple

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Every so often I write for The New York Forest Owner, the magazine of the New York Forest Owners Association (NYFOA).  The text below is verbatim from my most recent contribution, though I’ve added a few images and some brief commentary at the end that were not part of the original piece.

The title is Reconciling with Red Maple, and while it was written specifically for a New York audience, much of the information is relevant across the entire range of the species, which is pretty much everywhere east of the Mississippi, and sporadically beyond heading westward:

Each year, I devote a week to thinning my woodlot—cutting mostly firewood, along with some shiitake bolts and the occasional sawlog. Real poor quality stuff just stays where it falls to feed the soil and provide habitat. While I very much enjoy the ‘work’ (felling trees is fun in my book), my favorite part of the process comes at the end, when I get the chance to walk around without a chainsaw, and unencumbered by safety gear, just looking around to assess the results of that year’s efforts.

Thirteen years ago when I started working on this piece of property, the stocking was so dense that I could barely catch a glimpse of the dominant crowns, as they were almost always obscured by the suppressed understory trees, which in my case were mostly diseased beech. After years of dogged thinning, what once seemed to be a beech forest punctuated by an occasional maple has now begun to feel like a maple-dominant forest with some patchy beech problems.

As I cut more each year, I also learned more about the timber market, and so was initially dismayed to discover that while sugar maple is scattered throughout my woodlot, it is by far outnumbered by its less well-regarded cousin, red maple, which is very well represented here, from seedlings all the way through large mature stems. Over the years I have also had the opportunity to meet many fellow woodlot owners, a number of whom have seemed almost embarrassed to admit that red was the predominant maple in their woodlots as well: “Yeah, well, you know, I’ve only got red maples….” seemed to be a common refrain expressed by many of my peers, while they all but hung their heads in shame.

I felt much the same way until I accepted the fact that it is likely the best thing I will have to work with in many of my stands, and that after beech (which I am working to eradicate) it will be one of the species most likely to regenerate successfully.

So having reconciled myself to the fact that my woodlot really seems to want to grow red maple, and having noticed that it seems to be very competitive in all types of environments, I became curious about why this might be so and decided to do some research about the history and status of Acer rubrum in New York state.  The following is a synopsis of what I’ve learned, and how, despite its often maligned character, I’ve gained a new appreciation and respect for red maple.

First, some population statistics:

  • Among trees 5” dbh and larger, red maple is the most numerous tree species in New York state;
  • Among trees 15” dbh and larger, it is our second most numerous (trailing only white pine);
  • It is our second most numerous sapling (1-4.9” dbh) after beech, and is the 4th most numerous seedling;
  • Its dominance is near statewide, as it ranks first in six of the eight inventory units (is 2nd in Capitol district, and 5th in the Eastern Adirondack unit);
  • Extending beyond New York, red maple is the most abundant and widespread tree of eastern North America, inhabiting nearly the entire landmass east of the Mississippi, and occurring in 54 distinct forest-cover types.

And a few key aspects of red maple ecology:

THE GOOD:

  • high shade tolerance, though less than sugar maple/beech/hemlock; generally gives way to the more tolerant hardwoods after about 80 years;
  • vigorous seeder: large seed crop almost every year; seed matures and drops April-July; can form near pure stands on old fields; seed is lightest in weight of all maples, and is dispersed by wind, so can travel far from parent trees; trees reach sexual maturity at young age (4-10 years);
  • very fast growing, especially when young;
  • responds well to thinning;
  • lateral or taprooted–tolerant of dry/upland sites and wet/swampy/flooded soils;
  • very vigorous stump sprouter; 2nd growth stands are often of sprout origin; responds quickly after disturbance;

 

THE NOT SO GOOD:

  • minimal resistance to decay, often subject to butt rot and various cankers;
  • sensitive to wounding, slow to callus/heal wounds;
  • often of poor/defective growth form, especially on poor quality sites, or in multi-stemmed trees of sprout origin;
  • thin bark offers little to no resistance to fire damage;
  • buds and foliage are a preferred deer browse;
  • softer/lighter/weaker wood than sugar maple;

While the above list is a mixed bag of good and bad, based upon the population numbers red maple is clearly a tree with a successful strategy for outcompeting most of its neighbors in our neck of the woods (so to speak). Perhaps surprisingly, this was not in any way a foregone development, as early survey records show that red maple was only a minor component of most of the precolonial forestland of New York and the northeast.

So why is it so successful now? The answers that I found can be divided into two basic categories: 1) attributes of the tree itself; and 2) the nature of how we have managed (or not managed) the forests around those trees.

With regards to the tree itself, the key to its success seems to be its amazing adaptability—red maple has been called a “supergeneralist,” and has demonstrated the ability to grow on a wider range of soils (type/texture/moisture levels/pH) and elevation than perhaps any other tree species in North America.          Whereas sugar maple will thrive and outcompete red on the best quality sites, and has higher tolerance so will outlive red in ‘climax’ type/uneven-aged stands, red maple is content to take advantage on the margins everywhere else, as it is found thriving on sites far too wet/dry/acid/infertile for sugar maple. Its nutrient demands are lower, it grows faster, matures sooner, has higher genetic diversity, and has roots that are adapted to the extremes of both dry upland and swampy (even periodically flooded) sites. Metaphorically speaking, red maple is  blue collar, unassuming, and frugal in how it goes about its business while sugar maple is more akin to a demanding prima donna.

Another unique characteristic of red maple is its  seed ‘phenology,’ or timing: it is our only upland hardwood that matures and drops its seed in the spring and early summer, which germinates immediately thereafter, a strategy usually only employed by riparian species.  As most tree seeds drop later in the season and remain dormant until the following spring, this gives red maple seeds and seedlings a head start.

As far as what has happened around red maple that has led to its population explosion, the following have all played a role:

  • fire suppression—this is likely the biggest factor, as the bark of red maple has nearly no fire resistance, so the trees would have been killed off regularly and repeatedly by wildfires, which were a common natural occurrence as well as a deliberate management technique utilized by native peoples of the region prior to colonization; oaks would have thrived in this circumstance;
  • widespread disturbance in general—we’ve caused a crazy amount of forest disturbance in the past 250 years; left to themselves, more tolerant sugar maple and beech (and hemlock) will eventually succeed red maple in undisturbed forest stands;
  • high grading of more desirable trees—this is more of a personal observation, but it seems to me that in my woodlot, and in the hills around it, that there are lots of BIG red maple around that were passed by during earlier timber harvests—both due to the low financial value of these trees at the time, and lower Btu value for its firewood compared to other readily available species; these ignored trees thereafter functioned as the dominant seed trees for the next generation of forest;
  • man-made exponential increase in the deer population—deer like to eat red maple seedlings, but not the seeds, and not near as much as they like to eat acorns, which has given red maple a distinct advantage on drier upland sites that would once have been oak-dominant; red maple is also a far more reliable and prolific seeder than are oaks;
  • importation of gypsy moth caterpillar—due to human ignorance; the gypsy moth caterpillar will eat red maple foliage, but it is a less preferred food than are oak leaves, again favoring red maple on upland sites;

In sum, short of some new insect or disease (you never know these days), it seems that the ecological stage has been set for red maple to remain a dominant species in many of our woodlands for some time to come.

So if you’re like me, and have lots of red maple around, don’t despair. While it may not be the best (or even all that good) in any one given category, it ranks pretty high in most all of them, which seems to be the secret to its success. It’s an ok firewood, and currently has an ok value on the timber market, true to its generally ok nature. It’s reproducing like mad though, and will grow nearly anywhere, so next time you’re out wandering around your woodlot, take some time to get to know your red maples, as like it or not, they seem to be sticking around for the long haul, bearing many offspring, and humbly going about their business like the unpretentious, working class trees they are.

Resources

  • New York Forests 2012, U.S. Forest Service Resource Bulletin NRS-98, 2015.
  • “The Red Maple Paradox,” Marc D. Abrams, Bioscience, May 1998, pp. 355-364.
  • New York Stumpage Price Report, Summer 2016/#89: http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/lands_forests_pdf/spr2016s.pdf.
  • Silvics of Forest Trees of the United States, U.S. Forest Service Agricultural Handbook No.271, 1965.

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This red maple slab (above) came from a large specimen in my woodlot that was showing signs of crown dieback. I felled the tree and, since I own neither a tractor or a sawmill, milled it right where it fell with a chainsaw mill (satisfying but LOTS of slow work), and air-dried it for close to a year before beginning to work with it. The slabs dried very nicely, without much warping or checking. As the image depicts, they also handplaned quite nicely, with minimal tearout and great luster on the planed surfaces:

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While the industry considers it a ‘defect,’ I really like the darker color of the heartwood in maple (which in this case is really wide, likely reflecting a combination of genetics and growing conditions). In most circumstances, trees like this would be cut into narrow boards of uniform blonde sapwood in order to maximize their dollar value on the market, while the wide multi-hued band of heart would most likely be cut into pallet wood, or chipped for pulp. Bummer.

Here’s a few more pictures of red maple that I’ve put to use, again all sourced from my woodlot, the last photo being a table that ended up destroyed by UPS on its way to a client in Maine a few years back (on Christmas eve, no less), but that is a story for another day………

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