Swamp maple morning

By Jim McGuire - Contributing columnist

The floating leaf was a startling burst of scarlet upon the water.

I was enjoying a morning walk along the upper Stillwater, following a streamside path near Goode Prairie Preserve. Being an incorrigible fisherman, I naturally paused from time to time to study the flowing water, while fervently wishing I’d brought along a rod and tackle.

The eye-catching red leaf swirled around a rock and spun into an eddy, turning again and again in the merry-go-round of current. Looking about I located the parent swamp maple seventy-five feet upstream.

It wasn’t a huge tree, maybe thirty feet tall to the crown. But come October, swamp a swamp maple doesn’t have to be big to make an impact.

A swamp maple in fiery autumn regalia stands out like a flaming torch in a dark night. Like male cardinals at a winter feeder, the blazing red leaves simply astound the eye.

Autumn swamp maples also deliver their visual pleasure regardless of weather.

On sunny days they dazzle, filling your sight like a handful of rubies tossed onto the kitchen counter. A single swamp maple can visually anchor a hidden landscape; a stand of no more than half a dozen mature trees can dominate an entire hillside.

Should the sky be overcast or even drizzling rain, swamp maples perform a trick, glowing like a beacon, their brilliant scarlet leaves magically luminous, as if lit by an inner fire. No day can ever be dreary if there’s a swamp maple nearby!

Swamp maples—also called scarlet maples or red maples—are widespread, occurring throughout the Atlantic and Great Lakes region, from Newfoundland to Florida and west to East Texas.

Their tannins were once extracted and used by both Indians and early settlers to make a dye for clothing and ink. Swamp maple sap can also be collected and boiled down to syrup and sugar.

The wood of the swamp maple is rather soft as maples go, not particularly suited for furniture making—though a friend has a lovely bookcase and reading table which he fashioned from home-milled swamp maple boards. More often red maple is used for small stuff—clothes hangers, clothespins, veneers and interior finishing.

Swamp maples are what foresters call a “super-generalists.” Trees which can thrive in almost any situation—wet or dry, exposed to lots of sun or tucked into heavy shade, on soil that’s nutrient-rich or poor.

Which, incidentally, is why red maples, besides being fast-growing and attractive throughout the seasons, are so popular with landscapers.

Their swamp maple appellative came because they’re often found in damp hollows, boggy corners, and along mucky river corridors—soggy, fairly inaccessible landscapes.

Like many trees with a swamp-rooted heritage, red maples are programmed to drop their seeds in the spring, after annual floodwaters have receded. By contrast, upland trees typically drop seeds in the fall.

That, coupled with the tree’s environmentally broad growing conditions, means the swamp maple is both a great early-successional species, as well as a key late-successional species—one with a built-in three or four month jump on the growing season due to its early seeding.

No wonder swamp maples are capable of invading the woodlands like gangbusters!

As I stared at the tree, another swamp maple leaf loosened its hold high in the scarlet canopy and fluttered earthwards, glowing in the morning light like a translucent red shard from a cathedral’s stained-glass window.

Well, I told myself, you may have messed up leaving the fishing gear back at the house…but thanks to that little red swamp maple, the day has already yielded an unforgettable treasure.


By Jim McGuire

Contributing columnist

Reach Jim McGuire at [email protected]

Reach Jim McGuire at [email protected]