Silver maple embodies uncommon strength, grace

Posted Nov. 07, 2008, at 7:12 p.m.
Last modified March 20, 2011, at 6:01 a.m.

There are deciduous trees that astonish us with the intensity of their autumn foliage — sugar maple and red maple, of course — and then there are trees with more subtle fall color, yet uncommon strength and grace. Silver maple, Acer saccharinum, belongs to the latter group.

A large silver maple shades the ground between my Eastport house and Passamaquoddy Bay. I live with this tree. Each workday morning I take my coffee to the windowed wall of my home office and watch the sun rise across the water, a view framed by slender branches that grow downward from stout limbs and then curve upward, sending their branch tips skyward.

The leaves of my silver maple were a clear, soft yellow two weeks ago, in mid-October, but now blotches of brown are spreading through the blade, the yellow has faded and the petioles have turned dark red. Soon a strong, cold wind will strip the branches bare. My winter sunrises will be etched by the bare bones of this tree, snow packed in the deep furrows of its rugged trunk.

In early spring, while snow is still on the ground and leaf buds are still asleep, the red (female) and yellow (male) flowers will appear in the upper branches, followed quickly by the two-winged fruits. By the time the leaves have fully expanded, the fruits are twirling to the ground on spring winds.

The deeply lobed summer leaves are dark green on top and silver beneath, attached to their stems by long, somewhat flattened petioles that allow the leaves to flutter in the slightest breeze, much like the leaves of aspen. Listen to the words of Donald Culross Peattie in his 1948 classic, “A Natural History of Trees,” as he describes how “every breath of wind is sure to set the foliage to spinning, or fling it over. Then the contrast in the hues of the two surfaces is seen to greatest advantage; when composed, the tree seems clothed in dark green foliage (which, however, is filmy and delicately poised, never heavy). In the next moment the whole of one bough, or one half-side of the whole tree, will suddenly turn silver, as the blades are reversed, and show their undersides. Then, the summer breeze having sighed away, the tree regains its green composure, and again one hears that rolling, fluting whistle from the bluejays in the orchard, carrying piracy to the blue summer airs.”

I love my silver maple for its uncommonness. In a community crowded with Norway maples and sugar maples, my silver maple is conspicuous in its singular grace and beauty.

Why have we abandoned the silver maple as an ornamental tree? Some landscape architects, those who deem trees pieces of furniture, describe the silver maple as short-lived and “messy,” the latter term reserved for weak-wooded species that drop branches under the weight of ice, snow or wind.

I suppose we should pay attention to such practical matters and avoid planting trees that will live only two or three times as long as we do. And as for messy, I have seen a limb or two fall from my tree, yet it has maintained a handsome form into old age, a character befitting a tree hammered by nor’easters and blizzards for decades, a character shared with many of the good people around it.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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