Just as the sap of the sugar maple is prized during spring, we value the splendor of the tree’s autumn color as it contributes to the beauty of our natural landscape. The foliage of sugar maples — now displaying clear yellow pigment, the richest crimson and brilliant burnt-orange — outdoes all other trees.
This tall, handsome tree is among the best-known in North America, especially throughout the continent’s eastern half. Sugar maples are native to the area stretching east to west from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, and as far south as northern Georgia and Arkansas. They grow in a variety of soil types, but do best in deep, rich and well-drained soils. They could live for 300 years, and are the main component of the eastern deciduous forest. In Minnesota they grow in association with basswood, ironwood, red oak, white oak and bitternut hickory. The seedlings and young trees prefer shaded conditions.
Sugar maples are valuable to wildlife. Birds feed on their buds and flowers. The tree’s fruit comes in paired wings, matures in the fall with the seeds providing food for birds and other small animals. Squirrels eat the seeds, frequently storing them in caches after removing each hull and wing. Deer browse the twigs in winter. Birds, squirrels and others use the trunk and multitude of branches for nest sites. Countless insects, spiders and other tiny animals use the sugar maple for food and shelter.
Jim Gilbert’s Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.