Red Maple: The Unheralded Harbinger of Spring

For many plant lovers, the ephemerals are the thing. Spring ephemeral seekers wait patiently, searching delicately on spongey ground, eyes downcast to catch sight of that first little pink-faced Hepatica, the red hood-like spathe of the skunk cabbage or the speckled skin of the trout lily leaf. As I write this, I feel the anticipatory tingle of that joyful search.

But for me, Spring begins when Red Maple # 1 tells me so. It will start by showing me the notable fuzziness which heralds the first cracked flower bud. This year, the fuzz and swell peaked the morning of March 30th. The warm day coaxed the bud to open by late afternoon. The crack was just wide enough to see the heads of the stamens, all bunched together like little red broccoli florets stuck inside a tiny thimble. This opening told me that my house will no longer smell of burnt maple sugar from my husband finishing the sap on the stove. For some, Red maple flowers and the call of the spring peepers presage the end of maple sugar season - and so are complicated phenophases for sap folk. I will be sad not to trudge through the snow with buckets of sap, but I am also keenly aware that deep botanical pleasure will begin to suffuse my daily phenology walks as I track the rest of the phenophases to come.

It is fitting that Red maple is the one to call the season. This edge species is bold and responsive. It grows in just about any soil. It flowers, fruits, drops its seeds and germinates seedlings in one season - all before the rest of the canopy is even fully leafed out. It has impressive gender fluidity. One individual tree can have all female or all male flowers, some of both on different branches, some of both on one branch or even change sex from year to year (this is highly unusual - and amazing actually). Red maple is an important early season nectar species. Native bees and even honeybees rely on it to kick start the season.

Red maple tracks temperature closely. This year in NYC, observers saw flowers on February 28th. This is urban heat island effect in action. Here in the Catskill Mountains, there is over a month difference between the earliest and latest first bloom I’ve observed over the 5 winters I’ve watched this individual tree. In a recent analysis I did using a historic dataset from the early 1800’s, Red maple is now flowering on average 15 days earlier than it did then. Time will tell whether this extreme responsiveness is solely an asset, or whether there is risk in that level of sensitivity. It may be that this temperature tracking can go too far and push the red maple so early in the season that frost inevitably kills those intrepid flowers. But I’ve seen them relatively unharmed through numerous frosts already – and they don’t seem all that worse for the wear. I, and many other community science observers across the state and beyond will be watching – so we will likely know in our lifetime how the Red maple fares as the climate shifts. I have a feeling that the qualities that give our beloved Red maple a certain get up and go will go a long way in the uncertain times ahead. Keep up your bold heralding, red maple. We are tracking you.

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Community Greenways Collaborative manages the New York Phenology Project, utilizing the USA-National Phenology Network database and Nature's Notebook observation platform.