The Glory of our Native Sugar Maple

Now 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 after.
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 yellow pigments.
The layer of fallen leaves creates a carpet of mulch, which turns into humus that replenishes the soil with nutrients.
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 best.
The Native Americans made maple syrup in the following manner:
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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