As we head into September, I would like to profile our most iconic native tree, the national tree of Canada, our beloved sugar maple (Acer saccharum). There is only a faint hint of the colourful changes to come as I write this at the end of August, but you can see a few trees here and there just beginning to reveal the first signs of the changing season.
After the strange weather and extreme LDD caterpillar defoliation this summer, it will be interesting to see what the fall colours will be like. The change might come early or late, and it might be more or less spectacular than in other years, but fall is such a wonderful season that I will take whatever display our trees can muster.
Millbrook is blessed with many notable and venerable sugar maples, but I will focus on one exceptional specimen. This tree is over 25 meters tall and almost four meters in circumference. Based on a formula using these measurements, the tree could be as old as the house it shades, and possibly much older. My best guess is between 150 and 250 years. It’s an astonishing testament to the wisdom of a long-dead generation that we still dwell literally in the shade of their foresight. What would our world be like if all humans had a maple tree’s sense of time?
Sugar maples are slow-growing and long-lived (300-400 years) and can reach 24-36 meters in height. They are a valued hardwood and the source of our precious maple syrup. They are also the most easily recognized component of the hardwood forests of eastern North America and the most iconic tree in our autumnal landscape.
When this particular tree changes colour it absolutely glows with a shade of golden yellow both intense and ethereal. When will it peak? Who knows? But judging by the 40-year record keeping at Algonquin Park, the Sugar Maple peak can be as early as September 15th and as late as October 9th. Due to differences in elevation and other environmental factors, Algonquin trees peak a couple of weeks before our village trees. For example, in 2016, warm temperatures and a late frost resulted in a peak on October 6th. That same year in Millbrook, the colours peaked around October 19th and the show was all over by October 26th.
Still, whenever it appears, everyone in Millbrook looks forward to that moment when, driving down into the village from Country Road 10 on a crisp fall day, you crest the hill by the Community Centre and see Medd’s Mountain ablaze in swathes of orange, gold, and red.
You can begin the wait on your own by watching for the deep green leaves of summer to fade as shorter days trigger chemical reactions that slow and then halt photosynthesis in preparation for winter dormancy. Summer green drains away as the tree extracts chemical components it will use to resume growth next spring and summer. As the chlorophyll leaves, yellow (zanthophyll) and orange (carotene) pigments are revealed. The vibrant red hues we sometimes see in sugar maples result from the production of anthocyanins, a pigment that probably protects the leaf from bright sunshine as nutrients are retracted back into the tree.
But back to our particular tree. There is some evidence of LDD damage, and some thoughtful homeowner installed some cabling to support the tree as it ages, but it seems in good health overall. Other nearby Sugar Maples have been too stressed by defoliation to push out a second set of leaves.
As these historic trees continue to decline, what trees will replace them? In the mid-nineteenth century, farmers were encouraged to plant maples and other hardwoods along boundary lines and highways. Those trees were taken from nearby woodlots, ensuring that they were well-adapted to local growing conditions. And because they were native trees, they provided both beauty and ecological function.
We can only hope that enough far-seeing people alive today will make enough wise choices to shade future generations. If you’re interested in learning more about efforts to support the planting of our native maple trees visit www.mapleleavesforever.ca.
By Lisa Stefaniak