Nature Table for March
The surest sign of spring in western Massachusetts is the appearance of buckets and tubes on trees lining our winding rural roads. Sugar season marks the end of winter’s harshest weather, as the sap begins to flow only when daytime temperatures are above freezing. From living history to delicious meals, there is a multitude of community-based ways to engage with this sweet element of our natural and cultural history, but the naturalist’s way of learning about sugar season is not to simply observe it, but to learn to become a part of it!
The specifics of sugaring are basic enough, so long as you have sufficient trees to make the time spent worthwhile – which is where the first challenge of sugaring lies! There are thousands of species of maple trees in the world, and at least 13 of these are native to the United States. Of these native to our country, at least 7 different native maple species can be found here in western MA. When leaves are in season, it’s easy enough to distinguish sugar maples from non-sugar maples. In the absence of leaves, however, sugar maples are much more difficult to spot!
Waiting for leaves to begin to emerge isn’t an option for aspiring maple producers, as a leaf out signifies the end of the season’s sap run. Instead, sugar maples must be identified through their bark and buds during the leaf-less months. Maple trees can first be identified by examination of their growth pattern. They’re part of a group of trees who grow branches opposite from one another, which means that new branch growth will result in small twigs sprouting in twos on opposite sides of a branch (think twig twins). The easiest way to see this is not by examining low, thick branches, but by looking up to examine the treetop against the sky. If the ground beneath the tree is bare, look around for last year’s leaves and fruit (seeds). In the much more likely case that the ground is coated in snow and ice, it’s time to gather twigs with leaf buds and look closely at the bark.
Maple leaf buds follow the same pattern as the trees’ branches: they sprout in pairs from opposite sides of branches, which the exception of the terminal bud found at the branch’s end. To the untrained eye, leaf buds tend to seem the same from species to species: they’re a bit pointy and are varying shades of brown. However, close observation and an intentional search for natural bifurcation will reveal numerous subtle differences between species. Try gathering buds from a collection of trees growing opposite branches, and examine them closely with a hand lens. Sugar maple buds are the pointiest and brownest of all native Massachusetts maples, and the twigs they originate from are brown or gray (or brownish gray). The trees’ lenticels – the tiny dots visible on young branches – are lighter than the rest of the twig bark, too. Comparing the buds of a suspected sugar maple to the buds of other maples and even other deciduous trees can help to confirm that the tree is, in fact, a sugar maple and not a similarly colored or shaped imposter.
Getting up close and personal with a tree’s bark provides a secondary means of leaf-less identification. Sugar maple bark is made up of thick plates formed over time, with comparatively large rifts between them. It’s dark brown on the oldest trees, but lighter on younger ones, and tends to have a chunky look to it. Rather than collecting bark samples, try photographing the bark of many trees so that samples can be placed side by side. Bark identification is tricky without a close look at the tree’s leaf buds and is best used as a means of confirming a suspected sugar maple after leaf buds have been examined.
Think you might have a few sugar maples? Try tapping them, or wait a year and check the leaves when they appear!
This month’s nature table is a collection of leaf buds and bark samples from common Massachusetts maples (sugar, red, and silver) and other common deciduous trees (oak, ash, birch, elm, etc.). Create your own collection by gathering a few leaf buds from as many different kinds of deciduous trees as you can find!
Books to support studies of leaf-less tree identification include:
- Bark: A Field Guide to Trees of the Northeast by local author Michael Wojtech
- Winter Tree Finder: A Manual for Identifying Deciduous Trees in Winter by May T. and Tom Watts
- Maples of the World by D.M. Van Gelderen and P.C. De Jong
- Trees, Leaves, and Bark (Take-Along Guides) by Diane Burns
- The Tree Book for Kids and Their Grown-Ups by Gina Ingoglia
Robin Morgan Huntley, Community-Based Education Correspondent
A native to Maine, Robin joined Hilltown Families in early 2011. She is a graduate of Antioch University with a Master’s Degree in education. Her interests within the field of education include policy and all types of nontraditional education. For her undergraduate project at Hampshire College, Robin researched the importance of connecting public schools with their surrounding communities, especially in rural areas. Robin lives and teaches 5th grade in the Hilltowns of Western MA and serves on the Mary Lyon Foundation Board of Directors.