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Winged Seeds

June 10, 2015
red maple full leaf

Maple seeds are a study in compromise. They are equipped with a modest, but not extraordinary supply of nutrients. They fly away from the overbearing shadow [of the parent tree], but not very far. But nature has probably gone as far as it can in giving them wings.

(Bernd Heinrich, A Year in the Maine Woods, Perseus Books, 1994, p. 106)

In the month since I began following the large, triple-trunked red maple (Acer rubrum) tree that grows beside my driveway, it has fully leafed out and has been producing seeds. As Bernd Heinrich has noted, the winged seeds (called samaras) of maple trees, are a marvel of design. They package the seed with some nutrients to give it a good start in life, but they can also fly away from the shadow of the parent tree. For more than a week now, I’ve been watching red maple samaras twirl down out of the trees like tiny helicopters. Sometimes a breeze gives them forward momentum. Occasionally, one catches an updraft and rises away from the ground for a few seconds before resuming its decent.

red maple samara sizeMost maple trees that grow in Maine produce their seeds in late summer and fall; only the red maple and the silver maple (Acer saccharinum) produce fruit in spring. The USDA Red Maple Plant Fact Sheet tells me that the “red maple has the smallest winged seeds (samaras) of all native maples, about 5/8-3/4 inches long.” The associated USDA plant guide tells me that red maples are prodigious seed producers and that “up to 95% of viable seeds germinate in the first 10 days.”

I can believe the part about red maples being prodigious seed producers. I seem to have these seeds everywhere; some have even managed to get inside the house. I have never noticed so many before. Am I seeing so many red maple samaras this year just because I’m paying attention to them in a way that I didn’t before? Or have the trees produced an unusually large number of seeds this year?

I seriously doubt, though,  that the germination rate here is anywhere near 95%; so many of the seeds land in places not conducive to germination.

samaras steps Some land on decks, porches and steps.
…others on walkways. samaras walkway
samaras driveway Many twirl down onto the gravel driveway.
Many also end up in the gutters of my house, where they wash down the drainpipe and get caught on the screen of my rain barrel. samaras rain barrel
samaras web Some even get caught in spider webs.

Even so, there are still plenty of seeds landing in soil where they can germinate and grow, and the USDA tells me that the seedlings can get established in 3-4 months. Most of these seedlings will be in places where I don’t want maple trees growing (e.g., in flower beds), and I will spend time next spring pulling them up.

One thing that puzzled me about all the samaras lying around on my property is that they are single, when all my reference information about Acer rubrum tells me that its samaras are produced in attached pairs. At first, I worried that I had misidentified my tree and that it was actually some other species of maple – but everything else about these samaras fit the red maple description except their being single rather than paired. Then I read in the USDA plant guide that the red maple easily forms varieties and hybridizes with other maples, which made me wonder if I had a distinct variety or hybrid that produces single rather than paired samaras. However, when I was out for my morning walk today, I noticed the much larger samaras of silver maples in the road by a stream where they grow – and they were all singles too! This leads me to believe that the single samaras are not a species characteristic, but an environmental effect. Perhaps our unusually dry weather as these fruits were being formed caused them to be more brittle and to break apart as they fell from the trees.

This post is linked to Lucy’s tree-following meme at Loose and Leafy. Following an individual tree is providing me with a great opportunity to learn more about trees that have been part of the background of my life for decades.

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2015 9:36 pm

    Jean, one of the wonderful things about following a tree is reading other tree followers’ posts. Already I’ve learned a lot from you about red maples. This post about the size and the single/double samaras is fascinating. I’m glad you are writing about such a common tree and finding so many interesting aspects to share.

    • June 12, 2015 10:34 pm

      Pat, I’m really enjoying the process of using this one tree as a gateway into learning more about trees more generally.

      • June 13, 2015 7:56 am

        Can you explain this? I’m not sure what you mean.

        • June 13, 2015 9:05 am

          I mean that in order to understand this individual tree, I need to learn more about this species of tree. And in order to understand this species of tree, I need to compare it with other species in the genus Acer, and then I need to compare the structure and behavior of maples to other genera of trees, etc. … so that trying to understand this individual tree becomes my entry point into a larger study of trees.

        • June 13, 2015 12:30 pm

          Jean, thank you for this clear explanation. It’s no surprise you were an academic!

  2. June 11, 2015 6:53 am

    I have noticed a few maple seeds in my garden and thought this curious as the sugar maple nearest it is not spreading seed right now, unless what I have seen are immature specimens prematurely dropped. Thank you for your explanation. I am pondering the red maple as a replacement front yard tree. The house started with elms, which died and the front yard was barren when we arrived. We planted sugar maples but they couldn’t take the road salt. The replacements are ash, but I worry about the emerald ash borer. Maybe red maples should be the replacement.

    • June 12, 2015 10:36 pm

      Harriet, Red maples might be good replacements for your front yard trees. They are native, transplant easily, grow fast, are beautiful in spring and have great fall color. They can even be tapped for syrup.

  3. June 11, 2015 9:43 am

    oh I love maple tress and the little wings. I remember such fun watching them as a kid. Great post.

    • June 12, 2015 10:37 pm

      Diane, Isn’t loving maple trees a legal requirement for Canadian citizens? 😉

  4. June 11, 2015 11:38 am

    Such an interesting post. And neat to see the various places where wandering samaras landed. So tempting to ‘metaphor-ize’ !

    • June 12, 2015 10:38 pm

      Hollis, I’m still trying to figure out whether this is an unusually large number of red maple samaras or whether I was just oblivious to them in previous years.

  5. Anonymous permalink
    June 11, 2015 2:25 pm

    Interesting Jean – I didn’t realise any of the maples shed their seeds so early. If you check on the tree, you will see they are all double, but when they break loose from the tree they also break loose from each other -usually! 🙂

    • June 12, 2015 10:39 pm

      Jack, Thanks for the explanation. I would need a very tall ladder to get up high enough to actually see these seeds while they’re still on the tree.

  6. June 11, 2015 2:33 pm

    Ah, so now I know why Maine is so well forested!

    • June 12, 2015 10:41 pm

      Kris, The natural order of things here is for trees to grow anywhere that they aren’t actively prevented from doing so. If I get red maple seedlings showing up in rugs or in the grout between tiles, I’ll know that I’m not keeping the house clean enough! 🙂

  7. June 12, 2015 2:41 am

    Fascinating insight into how weather may change the habits of tree species. We have few maples here, but I was delighted to discover the other day that my shady little spot for a rest is actually shaded partially by a small field maple.

    • June 12, 2015 10:45 pm

      Cathy, That was just a hypothesis about the weather; it may not have had anything to do with it. Maple trees are very common here; they are what gives New England its famous fall foliage colors.

      • June 13, 2015 5:55 am

        I know Jean – and failing not seeing them first hand, it’s lovely to follow your inspiring and beautifully written blog!

  8. June 12, 2015 4:05 am

    Very interesting post, thanks. I never really thought about it and just took for granted that maple trees all spread their seeds in fall. But I stand corrected. Greta photos, too.

    • June 12, 2015 10:46 pm

      Felix, What I’m enjoying so much about this tree-following exercise is that it forces me both to look more closely and to do a little research. I’m learning a lot in the process.

  9. June 12, 2015 8:31 am

    LOL That anonymous talking about the single seeds and ending with a smiley was me…

  10. June 14, 2015 12:47 pm

    I don’t seen any maple trees any where on my street and yet I have baby maples trees growing where I don’t want them.

    • June 14, 2015 8:02 pm

      Jean, That’s curious. I don’t know how far the seeds can fly from the parent tree; maybe there was a very stiff wind that landed them in your yard. At least with oak seedlings, we can blame those pesky squirrels!

  11. debsgarden permalink
    June 15, 2015 10:09 am

    Long ago, not knowing much about maples, I was completely charmed and fascinated when I first saw samaras on the maples in my yard. Although I have lots of babies pop up every year in the garden paths, they are not hard to remove, and I still love to see the little “helicopters.”

    • June 26, 2015 7:17 pm

      Deb, Maple trees have been my favorite since I fell in love with their autumn colors as a child. Sometimes I get tired of pulling up their seedlings, but it’s impossible not to be charmed by those tiny helicopters twirling on the breeze.

  12. June 15, 2015 6:35 pm

    This is such a great article. I have had multiple maple trees on my property growing up and we called these things “helicopters” because when a strong gust of wind blew they would fly out of the tree and circle around like a helicopter’s blades. Really awesome to see.

    • June 26, 2015 7:18 pm

      Shad, I agree. I never get tired of this awesome sight.

  13. June 26, 2015 3:03 pm

    The maple seeds are now sprouting everywhere and they are food for many critters….that is a lovely tree and the idea it may have hybridized with another is intriguing.

    • June 26, 2015 7:19 pm

      Donna, This is one of the things I love about this tree-following exercise; I learn new things each month.

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