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