Glory of our Native Sugar Maple
that their fiery-hued leaves have fallen, the autumn
splendor of our sugar maples becomes a memory. The sugar
maple, also known as Acer saccharum, rock or hard maple,
is a magnificent tree; not only beautiful to look at,
it provides us with wonderful gifts year round.
Sugar maple wood is pale, becoming rosy with exposure
to light. It is strong, tough and fine-grained, and
when polished has a silky lustre.
The timber is used for such diverse things as the interior
finish of houses, flooring, boats, furniture, saddles,
tool handles, and the action of pianos. Occasionally,
sugar maple wood shows a curly grain or a spotted grain
which is known as "birds-eye maple." These woods are
considered to be very ornamental and are much sought
In the summer, the sugar maple provides excellent shade.
It has many branches closely set at sharp angles to
the trunk. The leaves, arranged in a dense, overlapping
pattern, are deep green above, pale green beneath. In
optimum conditions, this stately tree may rise to over
one hundred twenty feet in height!
In the fall, the twin-winged seeds twirl down. The green
of the leaves gives way to bright crimson red, then
orange, then yellow. The explanation for this process
is as follows: There is a layer of cells that lies between
the leaf and the stem known as the "abscission layer."
The combination of shorter day lengths and cooler nights
activates these cells and they cut off the leaf from
the stem, depriving it of water and minerals. This causes
the green chlorophyll pigment to break down. The abscission
layer also prevents the leaf from transporting its sugar
to the stem, and the sugar is converted to anthocyanin,
a red pigment. Anthocyanin then breaks down, revealing
The layer of fallen leaves creates a carpet of mulch,
which turns into humus that replenishes the soil with
For winter heating, only hickory outranks maple as a
fuel. Maple ashes yield much potash and alkalai. Fresh
unleached hard maple ashes make an excellent fertilizer
for vegetable gardens. In the spring, the maple gives
us its special gift -- the delicious sweet sap. Ideal
sugaring weathering consists of warm days with freezing
nights. This change in temperature between day and night
acts as a pump and causes the sap to rise and fall in
the tree. The first run of sap is considered to be the
The Native Americans made maple syrup in the following
Diagonal gashes were made in the trees, and spiles (hollow
tubes of hardwood) were inserted beneath the cuts through
which sap dripped into bark containers placed on the
ground. The collected sap was poured into bark buckets
and emptied into large mooseskin containers. These were
then pulled on sleds to the place where the sap was
boiled all night in hollowed-out log troughs until reduced
to syrup. When the syrup became thick, it was stirred
with maple-wood paddles until it granulated; sometimes
it was poured into molds. Maple syrup was used by the
Native Americans to season fruits, vegetables, cereals,
and even fish and meat! It was often given as a gift,
and was a standard item of trade.
Native American children, and later the settlers' children,
greatly enjoyed the sugar-making process. They took
particular delight in eating a confection made by pouring
hot, thick syrup onto the fresh snow.
Unfortunately, air pollution causing acid rain and acid
snow has begun to take its toll on these noble trees.
There are many documented cases of crown die-back among
the sugar maples. Trees which are stressed are more
susceptible to disease, drought, insect infestation,
temperature extremes and high winds. Many scientists
believe that if environmental detriments continue unabated,
our great-grandchildren will not be able to enjoy the
presence of sugar maples in the Catskills.
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