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