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I begin looking for signs that spring is coming in early March. Almost every day I check the spot in my garden where bloodroot has grown in past springs; I examine the buds on spicebush shrubs for signs of swelling; and I begin looking closely at the buds on red maple trees for tinges of red. These March searches are almost totally fruitless—which I expect, but I still cannot stop myself. It will be April before the bloodroot pokes out of the ground, the spicebush buds start to look green, and the red maple buds are red. But once the red maple buds open, I am satisfied that, yes, there will be a spring this year. They unfurl a blaze of red while the other trees are still shrouded in winter’s browns, gray, and blacks. This early show of color is even better because red maples are one of the most common trees in central New Jersey.

There are several reasons why red maples are so common. First, they can grow in many different habitats. They grow most successfully where the soil is damp, but they will do well in any substitute—wet or dry, sandy or clayey, and they grow in hardiness zones east of the Mississippi from Ontario to Florida. That is a greater geographical distribution than for any other tree in the eastern forest. Further, they can sustain harsh conditions; several years ago a Rutgers horticulturalist conducted a study that concluded that red maples grew more successfully in the narrow unpaved strips in parking lots than any other tree species. These strips often have excessively high temperatures as heat rises from sunbaked blacktop, there is no shelter from wind, and their roots are subject to salt and other chemicals put on the adjoining pavement to combat the slippery conditions of winter.

Red maples are also common because they are prodigious producers of seeds. They begin having viable seeds in their fourth year, and shortly afterward they can produce a million seeds a year, every year during their average lifespan of eighty to one hundred years.

When red maple buds open in the spring a tangled mass emerges. It is hard to tell one part of the tangle from another, but one thing is clear—everything is red. The flowers are red, the stems are red, and the new leaves are red.

Red maple flowers open so early in spring that it is often too cold for bees to be active and pollinate them. However, while insect pollination is best, red maples can also rely on wind pollination or self-pollination. The problem with wind pollination is that the direction and timing of wind can be capricious; it may or may not blow pollen onto a waiting stigma. The problem with self-pollination is that the flowers do not get genes from other trees, leading—over several generations—to less genetic variation, which weakens the trees’ ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

As they mature, the red maple seeds, and the helicopter blade-like structure that houses the seeds, begin to show a little organization. 

Red maple seeds come in pairs, and each seed’s casement is connected to a blade that gives it its wonderful aerodynamic ability. Once they are released from the tree they twirl through the air and, if the wind is right, can travel as much as a mile from the mother tree. The trees’ timing in seed maturation is also a little different from that of many other species. Acorns, hickory nuts, walnuts, tulip tree seeds, and many other tree seeds mature in the autumn, but red maple seeds are mature by late spring, and that gives them a chance to produce seedlings at a time when the voracious deer herds of central New Jersey have plenty of other choices for food. 

As the leaves mature and take on a green color the samaras (the seed and its casement) also mature, and also gradually lose their red color. 

Sometimes the new leaves are not green, or they are paler green than mature leaves because they have a high level of sugar and a low level of green-tinted chlorophyll. Stored sugar in the roots fuels the growth of the tree until the leaves develop more chlorophyll, which then combines air and water to make the nutrients that the trees use for the balance of the growing season.

Red maple leaves are usually red when they fall from the tree in autumn, but not long after they reach the ground they turn brown. A year or two after they have fallen the work of fungi, insects, and other decomposing agents turns them into mulch. 

I brought the above leaf inside in mid-March, put it on a dark cloth on a desk, and photographed it. Then I turned my back to work on my computer and my puppy walked over and ate it! This leaf was composted in six months.

By Jim Amon.