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Anna B. Comstock

The Maples

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HE sugar maple, combining beauty with many kinds of utility, is dear to the American heart. Its habits of growth are very accommodating; when planted where it has plenty of room, it shows a short trunk and oval head, which, like a dark green period, prettily punctuates the summer landscape; but when it occurs in the forest, its noble bole, a pillar of granite gray, rises to uphold the arches of the forest canopy; and it attains there the height of 100 feet. It grows rapidly and is a favorite shade tree, twenty years being long enough to make it thus useful. The foliage is deep green in the summer, the leaf being a glossy, dark green above and paler beneath. It has five main lobes, the two nearest the stem being smaller; the curved edges between the lobes are marked with a few, smoothly cut, large teeth; the main veins extend directly from the petiole to the sharp tips of the lobes; the petiole is long, slender, and occasionally red. The leaves are placed opposite. The shade made by the foliage of the maple is so dense that it shades down the plants beneath it, even grass growing but sparsely there. If a shade tree stands in an exposed position, it grows luxuriously to the leeward of the prevailing winds, and thus makes a one-sided record of their general direction.

It is its autumn transfiguration which has made people observant of the maple's beauty; yellow, orange, crimson and scarlet foliage make these trees gorgeous when October comes. Nor do the trees get their color uniformly; even in September, the maple will show a scarlet branch in the midst of its green foliage. I believe this is a hectic flush and a premonition of death to the branch which, less vigorous than its neighbors, is being pruned out by Nature's slow but sure method. After the vivid color is on the maple, it begins to shed its leaves. This is by no means the sad act which the poets would have us believe; the brilliant colors are an evidence that the trees have withdrawn from the leaves the green life-substance, the protoplasm-machinery for making the starch, and have stored it snugly in trunk and branch for winter keeping. Thus, only the mineral substances are left in the leaf, and they give the vivid hues. It is a mistake to think that frost causes this brilliance; it is caused by the natural, beautiful, old age of the leaf. When the leaves finally fall, they form a mulch-carpet for the tree that bore them, and add their substance to the humus from which the tree draws new powers for growth.


Sugar maple leaves.

After every leaf has fallen, the maple shows why its shade is dense. It has many branches set close and at sharp angles to the trunk, dividing into fine, erect spray, giving the tree a resemblance to a giant whisk-broom. Its dark, deep-furrowed bark smoothes out and becomes light gray on the larger limbs, while the spray is purplish, a color given it by the winter buds. These buds are sharp-pointed and long. In February, their covering of scales shows premonitions of spring by enlarging, and as if due to the soft influence, they become downy, and take on a sunshine color before they are pushed off by the leaves. The leaves and the blossoms appear together. The leaves are at first, yellowish, downy and drooping, thus shunning the too hot sun and the violent pelting rains and fierce spring winds. The flowers appear in tassellike clusters, each downy drooping thread of the tassel bearing at its tip a five-lobed calyx, which may hold seven or eight long, drooping stamens or a pistil with long, double stigmas. The flowers are greenish yellow, and those that bear pollen and those that bear the seeds may be borne on separate trees or on the same tree, but they are always in different clusters. If on the same tree, the seed-bearing tassels are at the tips of the twigs, and those bearing pollen are along the sides.


A foretaste.

Photo by Verne Morton.

The ovary is two-celled, but there is usually only one seed developed in the pair which forms a "key"; to observe this, however, we have to dissect the seeds; they have the appearance of two seeds joined together, each provided with a thin, closely veined wing and the two attached to the tree by a single long, drooping stem. This twin-winged form is well fitted to be whirled off by the autumn winds, for the seeds ripen in September. I have seen seedlings growing thickly for rods to the leeward of their parent tree, which stood in an open field. The maples bear blossoms and seeds every year. There are six species of native maples which are readily distinguishable. The silver and the red maples and the box elder are rather large trees; the mountain and the striped (or goosefoot) maples are scarcely more than shrubs, and mostly grow in woods along streams. The Norway and the sycamore maples have been introduced from Europe for ornamental planting. The cut-leaf silver maple comes from Japan.

The maple wood is hard, heavy, strong, tough and fine-grained; it is cream-color, the heart-wood showing shades of brown; it takes a fine polish and is used as a finishing timber for houses and furniture. It is used in construction of ships, cars, piano action and tool handles; its fine-grained quality makes it good for wood-carving; it is an excellent fuel and has many other uses.


The trunk of sugar maple in forest.

Maple-Sugar Making

Although we have tapped the trees in America for many hundred years, we do not as yet understand perfectly the mysteries of the sap flow. In 1903, the scientists at the Vermont Experiment Station did some very remarkable work in clearing up the mysteries of sap movement. Their results were published in their Bulletins 103 and 105, which are very interesting and instructive.

The starch which is changed to sugar in the sap of early spring was made the previous season and stored within the tree. If the foliage of the tree is injured by caterpillars one year, very little sugar can be made from that tree the next spring, because it has been unable to store enough starch in its sapwood and in the outer ray-cells of its smaller branches to make a good supply of sugar. During the latter part of winter, the stored starch disappears, being converted into tree-food in the sap, and then begins that wonderful surging up and down of the sap tide. During the first part of a typical sugar season, more sap comes from above down than from below up; toward the end of the season, during poor sap days, there is more sap coming up from below than down from above. The ideal sugar weather consists of warm days and freezing nights. This change of temperature between day and night acts as a pump. During the day when the branches of the tree are warmed, the pressure forces into the hole bored into the trunk all the sap located in the adjacent cells of the wood. Then the suction which follows a freezing night drives more sap into those cells, which is in turn forced out when the top of the tree is again warmed. The tree is usually tapped on the south side, because the action of the sun and the consequent temperature-pump more readily affects that side.


Sugar maple blossoms.

"Tapping the sugar bush" are magical words to the country boy and girl. Well do we older folk remember those days in March when the south wind settled the snow into hard, marblelike drifts, and the father would say, "We will get the sap-buckets down from the stable loft and wash them, for we shall tap the sugar-bush soon." In those days the buckets were made of staves and were by no means so easily washed as are the metal buckets of to-day. Well do we recall the sickish smell of musty sap that greeted our nostrils, when we poured in the boiling water to clean those old brown buckets. Previously during the winter evenings, we all had helped fashion sap-spiles from stems of sumac. With buckets and spiles ready when the momentous day came, the large, iron caldron kettle was loaded on a stoneboat together with a sap-cask, log-chain, ax and various other utensils, and as many children as could find standing room; then the oxen were hitched on and the procession started across the rough pasture to the woods, where it eventually arrived after numerous stops for reloading almost everything but the kettle.

When we came to the boiling place, we lifted the kettle into position and flanked it with two great logs against which the fire was to be kindled. Meanwhile the oxen and stoneboat returned to the house for a load of buckets. The oxen blinking, with bowed heads, or with noses lifted aloft to keep the underbrush from striking their faces, "gee'd and haw'd" up hill and down dale through the woods, stopping here and there while the men with augers bored holes in certain trees near other holes which had bled sweet juices in years gone by. When the auger was withdrawn, the sap followed it, and enthusiastic young tongues met it half way, though they received more chips than sweetness therefrom; then the spiles were driven in with a wooden mallet.

The next day after "tapping," those of us large enough to wear the neck-yoke donned cheerfully this badge of servitude and with its help brought pails of sap to the kettle, and the "boiling" began. As the evening shades gathered, how delicious was the odor of the sap steam, permeating the woods farther than the shafts of firelight pierced the gloom! How weird and delightful was this night experience in the woods! And how cheerfully we swallowed the smoke which the contrary wind seemed ever to turn toward us! We poked the fire to send the sparks upward, and now and then added more sap from a barrel, and removed the scum from the boiling liquid with a skimmer thrust into the cleft of a long stick for a handle. As the evening wore on, we drew closer to each other as we told stories of the Indians, bears, panthers and wolves which had roamed these woods when our father was a little boy; and came to each of us a disquieting suspicion that perhaps they were not all gone yet, for everything seemed possible in those night-shrouded woods; and our hearts suddenly "jumped into our throats" when near by there sounded the tremulous, blood-curdling cry of the screech owl.


Sugar maple growing in the open.

After about three days of gathering and boiling sap, came the "siruping down." During all that afternoon we added no more sap and we watched carefully the tawny, steaming mass in the kettle; when it threatened to boil over, we threw in a thin slice of fat pork which seemed to have some mysterious calming influence. The odor grew more and more delicious and presently the sirup was pronounced sufficiently thick. The kettle was swung off the logs and the sirup dipped through a cloth strainer into a carrying-pail. Oh, the blackness of the residue left on that strainer! But it was clean woods-dirt and never destroyed our faith in the maple-sugar, any more than did the belief that our friends were made of dirt destroy our friendship for them. The next day our interests were transferred to the house where we "sugared off." There we boiled the sirup to sugar on the stove and pouring it thick and hot upon snow made that most delicious of all sweets—the maple-wax; or we stirred it until it "grained," before we poured it into the tins to make the "cakes" of maple-sugar.


Maple seedling.

Now the old stave bucket and the sumac spile are gone; in their place the patent galvanized spile not only conducts the sap but holds in place a tin bucket carefully covered. The old caldron kettle is broken, or lies rusting in the shed. In its place, in the newfangled sugar-houses, are evaporating vats, set over furnaces with chimneys. But we may as well confess that the maple-sirup of to-day seems to us a pale and anaemic liquid, lacking the delicious flavor of the rich, dark nectar which we, with the help of cinders, smoke and various other things, brewed of yore in the open woods.


Leaves of silver maple.

Photo by Slingerland.

Lesson CXC

The Sugar Maple

Leading thought—The sugar maple grows very rapidly, and is therefore a useful shade tree. Its wood is used for many purposes, and from its sap is made a delicious sugar.

Method—This study of the maple should be done by the pupils out of doors, with a tree to answer the questions. The study of the leaves, blossoms and fruit may be made in the schoolroom. The maple is an excellent subject for Lesson CLXXXVIII. The observations should begin in the fall and continue at intervals until June.


Blossoms of the silver maple.

Photo by Ralph Curtis.


Fall Work—

1. Where is the maple you are studying? Is it near other trees? What is the shape of the head? What is the height of the trunk below the branches? What is the height of the tree? How large around is the trunk three feet from the ground? Can you find when the tree was planted? Can you tell by the shape of the tree from which direction the wind blows most often?

2. Can you find seeds on your tree? Each pair of seeds is called a key. Sketch a key, showing the way the seeds are joined and the direction of the wings. Sketch the stem which holds the key to the twig. Are both seeds of the key good or is one empty? How are the seeds scattered and planted? How far will a maple key fly on its wings? Plant a maple seed where you can watch it grow next year.

3. Make leaf prints and describe a leaf of the maple, showing its shape, its veins and petiole. Are the leaves arranged opposite or alternate on the twig? Make leaf-prints or sketches of the leaves of all the other kinds of maples which you can find. How can you tell the different kinds of maples by their leaves?


Blossoms of mountain maple.

Photo by Ralph Curtis.

4. If your tree stands alone, measure the ground covered by its shadow from morning until evening. Mark the space by stakes. What grows beneath the tree? Do grass and other plants grow thriftily beneath the tree? Do the same plants grow there as in the open field?

5. Does your maple get its autumn colors all at once, or on one or two branches first? At what time do you see the first autumn colors on your tree? When is it completely clothed in its autumn dress? Is it all red or all yellow, or mixed? If it is yellow this year do you think it will be red next year? Watch and see. Sketch your maple in water-colors.

6. At what time do the leaves begin to fall? Do those branches which first colored brightly shed their leaves before the others? At what date does your tree stand bare?

7. Find a maple tree in the forest and compare it with one that grows as a shade tree in a field. Why this difference?


Blossom of striped maple.

Photo by Ralph Curtis.

Winter Work—

8. Make a sketch of your maple with the leaves off. What sort of bark has it? Is the bark on the branches like that on the trunk? Are the main branches large? At what angle do they come off the trunk? Does the trunk extend up through the entire tree? Is the spray fine or coarse? Is it straight or crooked?

9. Study the winter buds. Are they alternate or opposite on the twigs? Are they shining or dull?


Leaves and fruit of striped maple.

Photo by Ralph Curtis.

Spring Study—

10. At what time do we tap maple trees for sap? On which side of the tree do we make the hole? If we tapped the tree earlier would we get any sap? What kind of weather is the best for causing sap flow? Do you suppose that it is the sap going up from the root to the tree and the branches, or that coming down from the branches to the root which flows into the bucket? Why do we not make maple-sugar all summer? Do you suppose the sap ceases to run because there is no more sap in the tree?

11. Write a story telling all you can find in books or that you know from your own experience about the making of maple-sugar.

12. When do the leaves of your maple first appear? How do they then look? Do they stand out or droop?

13. Do the blossoms appear with the leaves or after them? How do the blossoms look? Can you tell the blossoms with stamens from those with pistils? Do you find them in the same cluster? Do you find them on the same tree?

14. What uses do we find for maple wood? What is the character of the wood?

Supplementary reading—Trees in Prose and Poetry pp. 25-41. 


Blossoms of red maple.

Photo by Ralph Curtis.