Color in the Changing Woods


Sugar maple leaves

October 9, 2016

The past week has been a good one for fall color in central Maine. The days have been mostly sunlit and even warm and the nights cool enough to trigger the deciduous trees’ colorful transition to winter dormancy.

Most of the red in the autumn foliage here comes from maple trees, especially the native red maple (Acer rubrum) and sugar maple (Acer saccharum).  The red maple is a truly red tree; it is red in its buds, its twigs, and its autumn leaves, which might entertain a hint of orange for a while, but end up deepening to a pure, deep scarlet. The sugars also turn red, but they tend to hold onto some gold as they do, acquiring a rosy blush that can melt your heart.

In the beautiful weather last week, I spent hours  walking through the nearby woods. I became curious as to how many red maples there were, in comparison to sugar maples, and did an informal check.  What I found (not surprisingly given reports of their expanding numbers in North America) were plenty of reds–mature trees, saplings and small seedlings too.  The sugars were far less abundant and no matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find a single young sugar sapling or seedling. Instead, what I discovered in large numbers was another kind of maple altogether (albeit with a leaf shape similar to Acer saccharum’s), the Norway maple (Acer plantonides).  There were individuals of different sizes, and especially numerous were seedlings.  A couple of times I even found three or four of these seedlings growing directly under a mature sugar maple.

Norway maples are a fast-growing, non-native, pollution-hardy species originally introduced from Europe.  For a while they were planted in Maine as urban street trees.  That practice is now discouraged, but the trees have meanwhile made their way into the woods around many cities and towns.  The Norway maple is a lovely tree, usually with sunny yellow foliage in the fall, but discovering it in robust numbers in our woods has left me concerned: what will the future of the sugar maple be?

Of autumn maples
the sugar’s fire burns sweetest—
honey in the rose

May your autumn flame
warm us for ten thousand years,
Acer saccharum


Red maple leaves


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