Oh Those Sexy Red Maples

Red Maple Blossom - looks like mostly girl parts... will boy parts appear later?Months ago, I started a series of posts on trees.  Then something else stole my attention away, can’t remember what…  One of my posts was called Tackling Maples…  a very big subject, it turns out.  Over winter, I avoided the challenge of learning to identify trees by bark, twigs, and buds…  Next year, maybe?  Now that trees are showing signs of bursting forth, they are drawing my attention once again.

Did you ever think about tree sex?
At this time of year, it may be the last thing on your mind.  So many other sexy things vie for your attention.  Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs screaming for mates.*  Birds add their songs and their bright breeding colors.  And speaking of colors, the crocuses and daffodils use theirs to call out to your eyes, “Look at me!  Look at me!”

Red Maple BranchesIn contrast, the trees stand leafless… yet some are getting sexy!  Pay attention!

Red Maple, also known as Swamp Maple among other names, Acer rubrum is blooming now here in Western New York, and started even earlier where temperatures are warmer.

After reading lots of different sources on Red Maple, I just had to get outside and see for myself what all the words meant.  It didn’t take much to twist Sarah’s arm, or to convince her to jump up and grab branches, pulling them closer to my camera lens!  (Thanks, Sarah!)

Disclaimer:  I must say that of all the reading I’ve done as a self-taught naturalist, this Red Maple stuff has been the most confusing.  Each source says something just a little different from the last.  So, I’m going to tell you what I think I learned.  If there are any botanists or dendrologists out there reading this, please correct any errors I make!

Red Maple Blossom - a mixture of girl and boy parts - but mostly girl partsHere’s an example of a confusing passage from the first source listed below under my “Learn More” section.  It’s got some fun words in it, too!

Red maple flowers are structurally perfect. The species is polygamo-dioecious. Thus, some trees are entirely male, producing no seeds; some are entirely female; and some are monoecious, bearing both male and female flowers.

OK, first sentence.  Hmm…  If a flower is “structurally perfect” it has both male and female parts.  If that sentence is true, then how can the rest of it be true?  How can some trees be entirely male and others entirely female?  (Not a rhetorical question!  Please, someone, tell us!)  Maybe it’s just a typo, because another source said that the flowers on Red Maple can be male, female, or perfect (and the botanical term for that is polygamous!  Check out the last link under “Learn More” for a glossary of forestry terms!  Fascinating…)

Red Maple Blossom - mostly stigma, a few anthers...  a Tomboy?

We found as we examined various blossoms that some of the flowers had lots of the red thingies, while others had lots of yellow thingies.  Most had a combination of both – some with equal numbers of red and yellow, some with more red than yellow, and others with more yellow than red.  In the photo above you see mostly red, but there are few (out-of-focus) yellow ones, too.  The photo below seems to have no red thingies at all.  (Thingies, by the way,  is not a botanical term.  Don’t look for it in the forestry glossary!)

Red Maple Blossom - all anthers, no stigma - a boy flower!I assume the yellow thingies are anthers at the end of the male stamen and that they are providing the pollen.  I assume the red thingies are the stigma at the top of the female pistol  waiting for the wind to deliver the pollen.  (See, I do know the botanical terms… I just like the word “thingy” better sometimes.)

UPDATE 4/20/2008:  I was wrong!!  The red thingies and the yellow thingies are BOTH boy parts.  When the pollen is mature, the red anthers will explode to reveal the yellow pollen.  The female parts are tucked down lower on the flower.  I’ve added some labels to the picture to show you what I learned.  (Thanks to Suzi, our resident botanist, for the flower lesson today!)

Red Maple Blossom with Labels

(end update)

Seems obvious now that it has entered my brain, but it never occurred to me before:  Wind-pollinated trees must bloom before leaves come out to interfere with the movement of pollen.  Insect-pollinated flowers can lure their agents through the leaves by virtue of lovely scents and bright colors…  Which is not to say that insects don’t take advantage of the plentiful pollen on Red Maple.  The top of this tree was buzzing!

Red Maple Range MapSo, if you live in Red Maple range, get out there with a magnifier and look closely at your Red Maple trees.  What kind of thingies do you see?  Is yours a girl tree?  Or a boy?  Or are both kinds of flowers on it?  If so, does one branch seem to have girl flowers and another boy?  Or do they intermingle on the same branch?  Report back to me!  I’m curious.

Silver Maple Flower


Don’t confuse it with Silver Maple, though…  They are blooming now, too.  (And those are girl thingies coming out of that flower!)



Learn More:

Red Maple Diagram from Mass Maple Website*P.S.  Check out Ruth’s Frog Chorus video here. Sounds like Spring Peepers and Wood Frogs!

Update:  Check another Ruth’s Frog chorus at the bottom of this post.  She seems to have Western Chorus Frogs, too.  Lucky bum!

23 thoughts on “Oh Those Sexy Red Maples

  1. I should have read this yesterday BEFORE I went to the Park

    Will check it out next time (probably tomorrow)

    I saw your book at Mon@rch’s its gorgeous! I want one!

  2. Great post! Please submit the link to the Festival of the Trees. I hadn’t realized that red maple blossoms were so hard to sex. I particularly liked this point: “Wind-pollinated trees must bloom before leaves come out to interfere with the movement of pollen. Insect-pollinated flowers can lure their agents through the leaves by virtue of lovely scents and bright colors…”

  3. Tree sex – love it! Although we don’t have Red (or AFAIK (m)any other) Maples here, I quite enjoyed this post, including of course, the beautiful photos of the trees’ flowers!

  4. The red maples I have seen in the past week have not had flowers close enough to the ground for me to inspect. I didn’t know silver maples had similar flowers. Thanks for linking to my frog chorus!

  5. I ejoyed your post and learned something about the maple. Now I wish we had some in this area. I’ll check in town though because trees are often imported from other areas and do quite well here.

  6. I wonder if that enigmatic statement,that certainly appears confusing , is technically correct by using the words “structullay perfect” rather than just “perfect” ,suggesting to me that perhaps the male or female flowers may have aborted parts of the opposite sex. The rest is correct, however, because it fits in with the definition in the glossary you cite: “Polygamo-dioecious: having unisexual flowers with staminate (male) and pistillate (female) flowers borne on different trees, but also having some perfect flowers on each tree.”

    Just a suggestion because my plant morphology is too rusty to be sure, however, the reputation and qualifications of the author(s) of that confusing statement, as well as its context or the nature of the reference as a whole, might give a clue as to whether or not the authors know what they(him/her ??) are talking about. Then again, even experts can make mistakes.

  7. cestoady… Yeah! What you said! The source of the confusing passage was pretty reputable, I thought… the US Forest Service… I want to believe they are experts. I choose to believe that I just don’t know what all the words mean and like you said, maybe “structurally perfect” has a meaning I don’t fully understand.


  8. Hi Jennifer, I have some maples in my backyard, but sadly the only ones I know for sure is one Emerald Queen that was given to us as an anniversary gift one year and some Amur maples that came from the nursery. The others are transplants from Dad’s backyard. I guess I’d better do some species homework before I even start looking at flowers Thanks for this interesting post about maple flowers.

  9. Technical note: Acer sexuality. After consulting with a practicing botanist who specializes in tree genetics, and spending some time with various reference tomes and Googling a bit, I have learned that the sex life of the Aceraceae or maples is very,very complex. As a result of this complexity ,there are differing interpretations of events and of course, differing terminology. So you find Andromonoecious and Androdioecious in addition to the other terms mentioned in the post.

    To make a long story short, the family has species that can have flowers that are functionally male but have a vestigiial ovary == “structurally perfect”(SP) but functionally one sex or the other. So it is not too surprising that even A. rubrum can be a male one year and then a female the next,as well as other variations. It would appear that by having SP flowers ,the maples have maximum flexibility in sexual expression. So that statement in the post about SP that appears so perplexing is actually correct and not an error, as far as I can determine.

    After looking into the sex life of maples, I now have a greater appreciation of maple syrup, which may be related to all this reproductive complexity — who knows ??

  10. Many thanks to Dave for inviting this post to the Festival of Trees.

    And super many thanks to cestoady for all the legwork and many new insights he added in his comment!

  11. Pingback: I was wrong… « A Passion for Nature

  12. Pingback: Festival of the Trees #23

  13. Pingback: sisu

  14. Pingback: Women Sex Health » Sex, Gender, and the Green World

  15. Pingback: Sex, Gender, and the Green World

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s