Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Maples
Nature Bulletin No. 393-A   October 31, 1970
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE MAPLES
In autumn the upper reaches of the DesPlaines River -- for instance, at Dam No. 1, River Trail Nature Center and Potawatomi Woods -- present a gorgeous spectacle when the foliage of the sugar maples, of which there are so many, changes to brilliant hues of yellow, orange and scarlet. The Indian name for this stream meant "the tree from which the water flows", so the French called it "Riviere Aux Plein": the river of Maples .

The Sugar Maple, commonly called the Hard Maple, was very valuable to the Indians because, in late winter and early spring, they made syrup, sugar and vinegar from its sweet sap. The early French explorers and American colonists quickly learned to do this and, later, the tree was widely planted in groves and in rows along the roadsides and village streets. Maple syrup and sugar are now important products in Vermont, Michigan and other regions on both sides of the Great Lakes. The sugar maple, officially or unofficially, is the state tree of Vermont, Rhode Island, New York and Wisconsin. Its 5-lobed leaf is the emblem of Canada. There are about a hundred species of maples in the northern hemisphere and some of those in eastern Asia also have splendid fall coloring. The European species do not have it and, apparently, only in America do some of the maples have sap sweet and plentiful enough for large-scale production of syrup and sugar. One family trait is opposite branching and the leaves grow opposite one another on the twigs. The buckeye and its cousin from Europe, the horse chestnut, and the ashes, are the only other large American trees that have this characteristic. Another badge of the maple clan is their fruit, consisting of a pair of seeds joined together and each with a long papery wing, which grow in clusters. Botanists call such a fruit a "samara" but they are commonly known as "keys" and small boys have fun with them.

The sugar maple is native in southern Canada and all of our states east of the Great Plains but is most common and vigorous in the northern regions and the higher elevations of the southern Appalachians. We have seen giants that were over 4 feet in diameter and considerably more than 100 feet tall. The young trees have smooth silvery bark which becomes darker, furrowed, and frequently with shreddy plates something like a shagbark hickory.

It is one of our finest shade trees, and is third in production of hardwood lumber. The hard close-grained lustrous wood takes a beautiful polish and is valuable for furniture. The accidental trees with peculiar grain, known as curly maple and bird's eye maple, are especially prized. Maple wood is outstanding for flooring and has many other uses, such as bowling pins, shoe trees, canoe paddles and butchers' blocks .

In a later bulletin we will tell you about some of the other maples: the Black Maple which is probably a variety of the sugar maple; the Silver Maple of the stream banks and lowlands, which has been widely planted as a street tree because it is quick-growing; the Red Maple which is so beautiful in both spring and fall; the little maples of the north woods; the Norway, Schwedler and Sycamore Maples from Europe; and the Boxelder which doesn't look like a maple. Also how, as boys, we made syrup from the sap of soft maples and boxelders.

It took an awful lot of sap and wasn't very good.


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