Become Tree-Literate: Maples

The New York Times published a lovely article last week about the benefits over losing your “tree blindness”.  In other words, it extolled the virtues of learning to distinguish between tree species, which would otherwise blend into the background.

The author, DC-resident Gabriel Popkin, wrote:

But here’s the good news: Tree blindness can be cured. A few years ago, I knew two types of native trees, oak and maple. I considered all conifers to be pines. Then in 2012, I took an ecology course in Wisconsin in which we learned to identify 14 tree species — which, in the chilly upper Midwest, actually gets you pretty far. Suddenly the largest, most conspicuous living beings in my environment were no longer strangers. The trees lining my street in Madison with the rough, saucer-size leaves were basswoods. The giant in my backyard with the diamond bark and opposing rows of leaflets neatly lined up like soldiers was an ash.

GM can attest that learning to distinguish between tree species has made him come to value and appreciate the trees we live with. So he’s starting a new series to help you to learn the common street trees in Georgetown. Today he’s discussing maples.

Sugar Maple

This is the star of the fall, when its leaves turn into an explosion of reds and oranges, contrasted with the remaining green. A maple leaf is easy to spot, it looks like this:

And you can tell it’s a sugar maple by the bark, which takes on a shaggy appearance, like this:

Sugar maples are spectacular trees, but they are really struggling with the heat in Georgetown. It’s only a matter of time before they are all dead here, victims of climate change. GM has a great sugar maple outside his house, but it’s showing signs of stress and probably won’t last more than five more years.

Norway Maples

Sugar maples are the most spectacular maples, but Georgetown has other types of maples. The most common other type of maple is the Norway maple. This species is considered invasive in the United States and it is not recommended for planting here. Nonetheless, many are around in Georgetown because it’s known to be a hardy urban tree.

Identifying the Norway maple is relatively easy, but not necessarily by its leaf. The leaf is fairly similar to the sugar maple, but the lobes are a bit thicker.

It’s easier to identify it by the tree’s bark. Unlike the sugar maple’s shaggy bark, the Norway maple has a tight pattern like this:

On top of being invasive, Norway maples also don’t produce the same spectacular fall fireworks that the sugar maple does. It mostly just turns yellow and falls. They are also struggling in Georgetown’s heat.

Red Maple

Less prevalent than the sugar or Norway maple, the red maple is nonetheless an impressive species.

A red maple is easily identified by its distinctive leaf, which has fewer lobes than either the sugar or Norway maple:

It’s easiest to identify red maples in the fall when they explode in red:

Red maples are generally more heat tolerant than sugar or Norway maples (hence they are also known as “swamp maples”) and their natural range spreads from the deep south all the way to Canada.

They grow fairly quickly to an impressive size, which also adds to their popularity. However, like most maples, they tend to have a very shallow root system. In an environment like Georgetown’s, this causes a problem both for the tree and the sidewalk. The roots can become easily damaged by routine utility maintenance, and they can cause the sidewalk to buckle and bend as they grow. Some sub-species of the red maple have deeper seeking roots, but nonetheless it doesn’t seem that the city is planting many, if any, of these trees in Georgetown anymore.

There are a couple of impressive red maples just north of the Safeway parking garage. In a month or so they will burst into a bright red. Keep an eye out for them.

Other Maples

These three maple species represent the vast majority of maples you’ll find in Georgetown. You may find the following as well, particularly in locations other than sidewalks.

According to Wikipedia:

Following WWII, silver maples were commonly used as a landscaping and street tree in suburban housing developments and cities due to their rapid growth, especially as a replacement for the blighted American Elm. However, they fell out of favor for this purpose because of brittle wood, unattractive form when not pruned or trained, and tendency to produce large numbers of volunteer seedlings, and nowadays it is much less popular for this purpose to the point where some towns and cities banned its use as a street tree.

This might explain why so few silver maples are in Georgetown. If they are here, this is what their leaves look like:

The bark is somewhere between a sugar maple and a Norway maple:

Of course another huge category of maples that you’ll likely find in Georgetown gardens is the Japanese maple. There are too many varieties of Japanese maples to describe here, but this is a common appearance of the species:

They don’t always have dark summer leaves, but it is a typical feature. Most of all they are far smaller than the other maple species, making them not appropriate as a street tree, but perfect for a private garden.

There are of course more varieties of maples, but these basic groups should cover the vast majority of maples you’ll find around Georgetown. They are marvelous trees, but their days here (at least for the large types) are numbered. Enjoy them while you can.


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