The sun came out on Saturday afternoon and Marjorie and I followed it into the garden, where we were met by bumblebees and butterflies, they too overjoyed by sunshine. We could see steam rising from the surfaces of garden beds turned a week earlier, before the rain.
We walked about the garden surveying the slow advance of this spring. The red oak’s leaves were miniature golden replicas of summer leaves, the diervilla foliage an odd yellow-green. Flower buds on maple-leaf viburnum remained tightly closed while the deep pink flowers of a redbud, now in their third week, still brightened its corner of the garden.
In the back of the garden, at the edge of the woods, our mountain maple had started to bloom, each branch a candelabrum of flower spikes, tiny yellow-green flowers opening to a swarm of native bees. I was reminded of my first encounter with this species six years earlier, a tree growing in the shade of tall pines at a Boothbay research site. It was near dusk and the tree was in full flower, lighting up its corner of the woods.
I returned to the site later in summer with the intent of collecting seed, only to find the tree nearly destroyed by timber harvesters dragging pine logs out of the woods; just one of the original three trunks had survived to mature a handful of seeds on its branches. I collected these seeds and successfully produced seedlings, one of which now stood before me, six years from seed and already 10 feet tall.
Mountain maple, Acer spicatum, is easily grown from seed, either sown outside in fall or stratified in the refrigerator for three to four months followed by spring sowing. Considering the scarceness of this species in nurseries and garden centers, growing your own from seed may be the only way to bring this lovely maple from woods to garden.
Mountain maple is often reduced by deer and moose browsing to a large multistemmed shrub in Maine forests, hence the alternate common names of moose maple and low maple. The deer have ignored the tree in Marjorie’s garden and her careful pruning has created a lovely single-trunk tree with broad-spreading branches.
Over the coming summer, small two-winged samaras will ripen to red or yellow before they are carried off on autumn winds as the leaves turn to yellow, orange and scarlet. The bright red young twigs capped with snow will provide a spot of color in the winter garden.
Mountain maple demands shade. Scorching of the leaves and the thin bark occurs when it is exposed to full sun, a trait it shares with another eastern boreal maple, striped maple, A. pensylvanicum. A sheltered location protects the weak wood of both species from damage by wind.
Mountain maple is not tolerant of urban stresses, such as soil compaction and pollution. It is intolerant of flooding and its shallow roots, seldom more than a few inches below the soil surface, make it very susceptible to drought. We are careful to renew the mulch around our tree every spring and provide an inch of water every week during dry periods.
On the plus side, it can be grown from USDA Zone 2 to the mountains of Zone 7 and it has no serious insect or disease pests. It is among the most resistant of all maples to attack by the gypsy moth.
Europeans have long recognized the garden worth of this small maple, first introduced in 1775 and again in 1905. Like many gardeners in the United States today, they had a penchant for the exotic. For many of us, however, there is growing interest in sustainable managed landscapes that express the uniqueness of native flora. Plants like mountain maple have come into their own.
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