Signs of the Changing Seasons: Exploring New England’s Phenology Program

Red Maple
Image source: USDA-­‐NRCS PLANTS Database/Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada, and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 2:495.

Nature has its own way of signaling the changing seasons, and in New England, there’s a program dedicated to observing these signs. Welcome to the fascinating world of phenology, where we dive into the captivating beauty of the Red Maple tree (Acer rubrum). Let’s explore its unique characteristics and learn how it plays a role in our environment.

The Majesty of the Red Maple

Standing tall at 50 to 60 feet when fully mature, the Red Maple is a deciduous tree that graces the eastern half of the United States. Its versatility extends beyond its aesthetic appeal as it can also serve as a source for syrup production. However, the early budding and flowering of the Red Maple shorten the syrup season, presenting a challenge for maple enthusiasts.

Unveiling the Leaves

Take a closer look at the mesmerizing leaves of the Red Maple. Resembling a hand with five lobes extending like fingers from a central point, these palmately lobed leaves set it apart from its sugar maple counterpart. The teeth on the edges of Red Maple leaves are more pronounced, contrasting the smoother edges of sugar maples. Green on top and light greenish white underneath, these leaves transform into a brilliant shade of red come autumn. The leaf stalks and twigs also possess a reddish hue, adding to the tree’s allure.

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Blooming in Splendor

As spring arrives, the Red Maple showcases its vibrant flowers. Hanging in small clusters, these bright red blossoms precede the emergence of leaves. Interestingly, each Red Maple tree may exhibit a different mix of male and female flowers. The male flowers boast long stamens covered in yellow pollen, while the stigma of the female flowers extends beyond the petals, ready to receive pollen. Eventually, it is the female flower that develops into fruit.

Red Maple Flowers
Image source: Red maple flowers blooming in spring. Paul Wray, Iowa State University,

Red Maple Samaras
Image source: Red maple flowers (female). B. Bisson, ME Sea Grant

The Dance of Seeds

Maple trees contribute to the world of seeds with their distinctive “spinners” or “helicopters.” These double samaras, known for their characteristic descent to the ground, add a touch of wonder to the natural world. In spring, Red Maple samaras take on a red hue, unlike the green samaras of sugar maples. As these samaras disperse before the leaves fully develop, the Red Maple ensures its legacy continues.

Red Maple Samaras
Image source: Red maple samaras with new leaves. B. Bisson, ME Sea Grant

The Story in the Bark

Observers of maples will notice the evolution of the Red Maple’s bark. Younger trees exhibit smooth, light gray bark, while older trees may showcase broken plates of bark. This transformation adds depth to the tree’s visual appeal.

Observing the Marvels

Witnessing the wonders of maples can sometimes prove challenging, with leaves and flowers often hiding high up in the tree. Arm yourself with a pair of field glasses (binoculars) to catch a closer glimpse of the captivating flowers, adorned with dark red petals and yellow stamens. If you find yourself at a loss for identifying the flowering period, look for traces of yellow pollen on the ground. And as you gaze upon the spinning samaras, remember that they too are fruits, playing their part in the grand botanical symphony.

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For more information and resources related to Red Maples, consider visiting the following sources:

Now that you’ve delved into the world of Red Maples, it’s time to embark on your own phenology journey and discover the hidden stories behind nature’s seasonal changes.

A fascinating array of nature awaits you at the Ames Farm Center!