Invasion of the swamp things

brokeback maple 2

Red maples are one of the few tree species capable of becoming grotesque at an early age. In a way, their highly malleable forms reflect their superior adaptability: they are at home in wide variety of soil types and exposures, and though a first-succession species, can also take advantage of relatively small gaps in the canopy. They are, however, not long-lived trees, so unlike oaks, for example, they must start producing seeds at a young age. It makes sense, therefore, that they would evolve a mutable architecture geared toward short-term reproductive success at all costs.

maple leaf

The one thing red maples don’t tolerate very well is fire, being thin-barked and shallow-rooted. Oaks and hickories, by contrast, are good at isolating fire scars and preventing them from becoming an avenue for infection, and their roots go deep. A hundred years ago, small, low-intensity ground fires were a relatively common occurrence in the drier parts of the eastern forest, and as a result, red maples were rarely found outside of really wet areas. But with widespread fire suppression, the oaks and hickories lost their competitive advantage and the maples, being faster growers, were able to dominate natural and man-made forest openings such as blow-downs and clearcuts. It doesn’t hurt that the over-abundant white-tailed deer seem relatively unenthusiastic about red maple sprouts, and acid rain apparently doesn’t affect them much, either. So what was once a creature of the swamps has virtually taken over the state, and studies of forest composition show that it is now our single most common tree.

ready or not

That’s scary news to anyone who cares about natural forest ecosystems. Maple seeds aren’t nearly as popular with wildlife as acorns and hickory nuts, possessing only a fraction of their nutritional value, and my insect-collecting brother Steve informs me that dead maple trees don’t support anything like the diverse invertebrate communities that populate dead oaks. It’s a good bet their decay doesn’t contribute much to the soil, either.

So if you’ve been around for more than a few decades, it’s not your imagination: the fall foliage really is getting more spectacular with every passing year. Whereas oaks are fairly temperamental, going straight from green to brown as often as not, and being fairly monochromatic by species when they do color up, you can count on red maples every year for an array of bright reds and oranges as variable as their architectural forms.

Knowing what I know, how can I still admire their colors and their grotesque shapes? But I do. Hell, it’s not their fault they’ve become so goddamn numerous. I love red maples the same way I love people, come to think of it.

Don’t forget to submit links to the Festival of the Trees by October 26 for the special Halloween-themed edition.

And yes, I have written about red maples and fire suppression at least once before, so Google informs me.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave's writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the "share alike" provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

13 Comments


  1. While I was exploring the bottom of Bryce Canyon, I encountered the local Big-Toothed Maples which were in fine foilage….

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  2. I’ve thought for a while that these days, the single biggest survival factor for anything big enough to see is, “humans like them”….

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  3. People… colour… grotesque shapes. Jeez, you really know how to make us good about ourselves. However surely it is, in a rather fundamental way, our fault that we’re so goddam numerous?

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  4. Joel – I’ll have to check out your photo galleries. That sounds really nice, given how impressive Bryce Canyon is even without fall colors.

    David – Not quite true – a lot of things survive simply from our malign neglect – but we’re approaching that point with frightening speed.

    rr – I’ve met you, and I can vouch for the fact that you’re not grotesquely shaped. Colorful, yes.

    It is and it isn’t our fault. Personally, I blame the paleolithic predators who were so wimpy as to let a bunch of hairless bipeds armed only with spears wipe them out. Now governments, corporations and elites have taken their place, and we continue to respond to their depredations as most prey species would: with elevated levels of stress and reproductive activity.

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  5. :-) Absolutely. And crows and nutria and cockroaches. There’s something endearing about all of us indestructible oversexed trash species.

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  6. Not sure I’d include crows in that. But yeah, well put.

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  7. There are what look like red maples in the grounds of my mother’s nursing home. Spectacular colour amongst the mellow yellows & mundane browns.

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  8. David, Dave, Dale, Dick: proliferation of literate seed-bearing alliteratives.

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  9. I’ve haeard about it, but I’m not sure I buy it. I’ll wait and see how many other scientists endorse this theory.

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  10. It’s a crackerjack theory, very colorful, full of happy coincidence, it’s a binder of loose threads. I dig it, and I’m a big Overkill theory fan. Just read the lurid book. Read Overkillbook, and two others.

    Yes, we will bide while they gnash this out. But I’d love to chat about it! The late Pleistocene fauna is stupendous. What a thing to go missing! It is beyond me to grasp the riches. Have you ever cataloged all the fauna so recently gone missing from Plummer’s Hollow? Overkill author Martin stresses that you’re missing half the picture of the present if you don’t visualize the missing fauna. It seems animals must have been so very thick upon the land. Have you seen the lists? Your woods must have been very different then. Imagine that man speared all of this into oblivion! I think it is all too easy to under-appreciate the diversity, the spread, the sheer numbers, the vitality of those lost beasts. Martin’s Overkill dwells the possibility of a dodo-like lack of fear of man. It is easy to see the susceptibility of a giant ground sloth to the novelty of a spear cast from a distance, but it is hard to imagine the same thing pertaining to horses, camels, elk, moose, and most of all a mountain goat, all of which were habituated to pursuit by predators. A hare went extinct as well. I’m curious if other not-so-megafauna perished as well. One research does say that populations of man boomed on the great plains during and following the comet impact, but this is in opposition the the widespread sudden decline in human population. When populations did return, it was a new culture, a new cruder sprear point and the Clovis fluted point was gone.

    It seems established that there was a honkin’ big impact, either into the ice sheet or exploding above the earth, and widespread fire. Cataclysmic melting of the ice sheet is not proven, but it is fun to imagine and provides a fine explanation for the formation of drumlins. Did you know about the Carolina Bays?
    What fun to learn of them. And all that radiation, and bombardments of ultra-high sped pellets — what a way to go! I love the black algal mat — I’m going on about the Firestone book, by the way. To seal the deal he and other authors bring in Native American creation myths of flood, falling stars and fire as eyewitness accounts, though their survival would contradict the theory of the decimation of the human populace. Frankly he runs away with his hypothesis, but what prick of caution to learn that certain people’s have a myth of the sky being made of stone. Ouch! Supernovae hurt.

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  11. Here in northern Missouri we don’t have native Red Maples, but the Acer rubrum/Acer saccharinum clones such as Autumn Blaze are increasingly common in city and town environments, and they have dependable fall color. Luckily they haven’t become feral and invasive, like the Norway Maples in the eastern states.

    As for the oaks, every few years the White Oaks (Quercus alba) display subtle but stunning fall leaf colors, consisting of a range of shades from rose-purple to grayish-violet-purple. I wish it happened more often!

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  12. Yeah, you’re right about white oaks. And the Norway maple invasion is another issue I didn’t want to get into, but we have them, too, especially in the lower third of the hollow.

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