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Vermont Arbor Day: Celebrating the Mighty Maple Trees

When it comes to the mighty maple, trees indigenous to the Northeast forests, there’s much to celebrate. Their showstopping foliage in the fall, their generous abundance of sap in the spring, and their natural ability to mitigate effects of climate change. The Butternut Mountain Farm crew has always valued considerate stewardship of our land. The crew dedicates their time to working year-round in an effort to conserve the environment in which these trees can continue to thrive.

In celebration of Vermont’s Arbor Day David Marvin shares with us what’s so special about these trees, talking us through key identification points for maple trees, the significance of sugarbushes, and how anybody anywhere can care for the giants rooted in their own backyard.

Identifying Maple Trees

How do I know what tree is a maple tree? Well, there are over 100 species of maple trees. There are Silver Maples and Norway Maples. Black Maples and Florida Maples. What we’ll focus on is how to identify the Sugar Maple and Red Maple, the trees most common to our Northeast sugarbushes.

How to Identify a Sugar Maple

Sugar maple trees boast a phenomenal blaze of colors in the fall. Their display is what attracts “leaf peepers” each autumn to the northeast. Take a closer look at those leaves and you’ll notice that they are 5 lobed, sharp pointed, with no serrations around edges.

But the identification process isn’t exclusive to the color or shape of the leaves. David Marvin points out that a big difference between maple tree species is in the color of the bark. Sugar maple is tannish grey and sometimes tan while red maple is more of a steely blue grey.

Another way to tell if a tree is a sugar maple is by inspecting the buds. Sugar maples have tannish-brown buds that are sharp pointed. (Be careful because they’ll prick your finger!) They flower later in the spring with yellow flowers and their seeds are produced in the fall.

How to Identify a Red Maple

Red maple trees are also tapped each season for their sap. How can you tell a tree is a red maple? Look to the leaves first. David Marvin notes that a red maple leaf is 3 lobed, has serrations and is rounded at its points. Before they turn in fall their leaves are lighter in color. More “lime green compared to dark green,” David remarks. And when the red maple leaf does turn, it’s a showstopper.

“Red maple is the first we see in Vermont because it occurs in wet sites,” David explains. As a result, the foliage turns a beautiful bright red to crimson.

But before any leaf has developed or turned, the easiest way to tell that a tree is a red maple is when the buds are fully formed. They’ll be red and globus. The red maple “flowers profusely” with bright red flowers in spring before the leaves form.

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But these two prominent maple trees aren’t the only in a sugarbush. Responsibly managing biodiversity is what helps a sugarbush thrive. The healthier the maple tree, the more carbon that’s sequestered. With carbon sequestered, the trees exude oxygen back into the atmosphere. Sugarbushes aren’t interested in harvesting a whole tree and therefore don’t remove much carbon out of the woods.

It’s not only during sugaring season that the maple trees capture our crew’s attention. The Butternut Mountain Farm’s crew works year-round to manage the health of the forest.

Significance of a sugarbush in understanding climate change

Focusing on diversity in the sugarbushes helps make the trees more resilient to pests, insects and disease that may become rampant in a monoculture. In our woods you’ll find both sugar and red maple trees. Though they’re in the same genus, they represent diversity in the sugarbush. “One may be more resilient to site conditions or insects than the other,” David explains. And maintaining a diverse forest floor allows a sugarbush to thrive which in turn is significant for mitigating the effects of climate change.

Responsible management of these forests is critical. David shares that 99% of trees are naturally regenerative from seeds. There may be 4,000 to 5,000 trees that are 1-2” in diameter per acre in a carpet of seedlings. Through natural progression and an assisted thinning process, eventually that leads to 100 trees or so per acre.

In the process of forestry management, this gentle and careful thinning increases the tree’s growth rate, keeping each viable tree as healthy as possible. That way they’ll be able to store more carbon because they’ll grow faster. It takes 25 to 50 years to grow a maple tree that’s productive for sugaring and trees that were thinned when David began are just beginning to be tapped today.

How to take care of the trees around you

You may not tend woodlands, but chances are there are trees around your neighborhood that deserve proper attention and care even if they’re not being tapped for sap. David Marvin’s advice? “Use the medical creed: do no harm.” When it comes to lawn care, think about what you’re doing before you do it.

Weed whackers, for example, are not good for your yard. Be conscious of the trees and as you work on your lawn, to not compress tree roots, drive over them or dig around them.

Think of trees as living things in need of care. The more we care for the trees around us, the more we care for our environment and community.