Maple trees forever
With the sesquicentennial upon us, it seemed pertinent to write about our national tree (and flag emblem), the majestic maple. Of the 150 species of maples found around the world, only 10 are native to Canada, yet it is the tree most identified with our great nation. Maples grow throughout Canada except in northern regions.
The 10 species of maple trees native to Canada have been growing here well before our country was discovered by European settlers. The trees have adapted to local conditions and are much like our nation itself; diverse, hardy and beautiful. Part of the genus Acer, they are also well known for their glorious fall foliage.
While the maple leaf may have been a symbol representative of Canada well before the country’s confederation in 1867, it wasn’t until 1965 that the maple tree was officially chosen as our National Arboreal Emblem and its bold red leaf placed on our flag. The maple leaf emblem was used throughout Canada’s early history by several associations, set on provincial and national (1921) coat of arms and on the Royal Canadian 100th Regiment Badge. It was lauded by Jacques Viger, the first mayor of Montreal as, “the symbol of the Canadian people,” and used prolifically in decorations when the Commonwealth welcomed the Prince of Wales in 1860.
The Maple Leaf Forever, our first anthem, was penned in 1867 and the leaf appeared on all of Canada’s coins. Sadly, that tradition has passed since the penny retired in 2012. However, today it can be found on our paper bills. The maple leaf has become embedded in our culture, a symbol of Canada and its people. It is proudly displayed on military equipment, on the uniforms used to identify our athletes at the Olympics and is worn by Canadians everywhere, at home and abroad, as a symbol of our Canadian pride.
Our native trees
Maple trees have become acclimatized to various growing conditions; from wet to dry and even clay soils. They are coveted as shade and specimen trees in gardens and for boulevard plantings for both their beauty and tolerance for drought. Maples are available in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours and are renowned for their colour in the autumn garden. Leaves of orange, yellow, brown and red put on a dazzling display of colour, often all on the same tree.
There are two types of maples classified by bark type: hard and soft. Hard maples grow slowly and live longer, specimens include the black and sugar maple. Soft wooded trees such as red and silver maples grow rapidly and therefore produce a softer word. Soft wood maples are more susceptible to rot and broken branches as they mature.
Maple leaves are generally easy to spot but do vary by species. Deciduous leaves, set opposite each other on the branch, are divided into three, five or seven tapered and pointed lobes. Some leaves have small indented lobes while others, like the Manitoba maple, are so deeply indented they look like three individual leaves. Leaf shape and bark can help in tree identification. Maples do tend to be a tad promiscuous and can form hybrids in the wild, sometimes making it difficult to pin down an exact ID.
Pollen and seed flowers vary, one tree can have as many as three types of flowers. Flowers appear early in the spring either before or at the same time as the leaves begin to bud. They are pollinated by insects or the wind. If you are lucky enough to have a maple tree nearby, you can hear the busy buzz of pollinators in early spring as they flock to one of spring’s first flowers.
Perhaps the most recognizable trait of maple trees is their winged fruits or samaras, which are commonly referred to as keys. Each samara contains a seed which is dispersed by the wind when they are ripe. They are beautiful to watch as they helicopter down from the branches, swirling and twirling on the wind.
Greenhouses offer a variety of cultivars, from the dainty Japanese maple to the Amur maple with its bright red samaras developed here in Canada. Should you happen upon a specimen you adore, maples are also easily grown from cuttings or seed.
Rather than one particular species, the entire Acer genus was chosen to represent our multicultural nation, and with the maple leaf on our flag, there could not have been a more obvious choice for Canada’s national tree.
The leaf of the sugar maple looks most like the leaf on our flag, however, the stylized leaf was not meant to represent any particular species.
A maple bud swells in the spring (above left), soon to burst forth in young tender leaves (above right).
Vine maple flower.
The dried samaras (fruit) of a maple.
The blossom of a big leaf maple tree.
Bright fall colour of the Japanese Maple ( Acer japonicum).
Tatarian maple "hot wings' ( Acer tataricum 'GarAnn').