Just as the sap of the sugar maple is a valued item in the early spring, so its autumn foliage splendor is valued as it contributes to the beauty of our landscape.

Many observers believe that the most magnificent display of color in the kingdom of plants is the autumnal foliage of North America. The foliage of the sugar maples — now showing in various parts of the state clear yellow pigments, the richest crimson and brilliant burnt-orange — outdoes all the other trees.

The tree is among the best-known in eastern North America. Sugar maples are native from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, and south to northern Georgia and Arkansas. They grow in a variety of soil types but do best in deep, well-drained soils. They can live for 300 years and are the main component of the eastern deciduous forest, growing in Minnesota with basswood, ironwood, red oak, white oak and bitternut hickory.

Sugar maples are valuable to wildlife. Birds feed on their buds and flowers. The fruits in paired wings that “helicopter” to the ground are food. Squirrels eat the seeds, frequently storing them in caches. Birds often use the leaves and seed stalks in nest-building. Deer browse the twigs. Birds, squirrels and others use the trunk and multitude of branches for nesting.

Maple syrup and sugar can’t be forgotten. Indians who lived near the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River produced maple sugar and syrup from the trees long before Europeans arrived in North America.

Jim Gilbert taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.