Bigleaf Maple…Who Knew?

Bainbridge Island, WA – The forest can be an interesting place after a blustery wind storm.  Downed limbs open up views into the tangled growth and all manner of plant parts litter the pathways. Today, I discovered beautiful little soft green clusters of blossoms strewn over the forest floor and upon looking up, discovered the surprising source, the towering Bigleaf Maple tree.

IMG_7757Bigleaf Maples are known for their huge golden leaves in the fall, but apparently they also pack a powerful visual punch in the spring.  Each tree must wait until it is about 20 years old before it can show off its first glorious bloom.  Each plump quarter inch yellow green blossom attaches to a raceme* of four to six inches that hang like fragrant ornaments all over the huge tree. Bees and other insects love the early spring blossoms and help transport pollen for a fall harvest of classic maple whirly bird seed pods.

I am always delighted to find edible woodland delicacies and the Bigleaf Maple is a local favorite.  The blossoms can be eaten raw on salads, as a lovely side garnish or topping on soup or dessert. Bigleaf Maple Fritters usher in a new spring season and celebrate hope as the dreary days of a northwest winter wane. Maple honey is also prized among beekeepers for its extraordinary flavor.

Bigleaf Maples have several other design tricks up their trunks. For example, when the autumn rains started back in the fall, I noticed an increase in epiphytic* mosses and lichens growing on the pointy toes of the trees all the way up to the massive branches, hanging like curtains in the autumn forest.  The mosses and lichens act as a thick mat of soil sitting right on the calcium rich bark. The tree is able to grow special aerial roots from its branches that soak up moisture and nutrients from this elevated soil. Licorice fern can also be seen growing high up in the carpeted branches.

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The beautiful Bigleaf Maple is one species that you will want to track through the seasons to experience the broad showcase of spectacular design features.  Choose a tree in your area and get to know its unique characteristics. Notice what other plants grow on their trunks and branches. In the spring and summer, dissect a blossom to study the drooping flowers and unfurling leaves. Once their enormous leaves are out, measure the span. In the fall, examine the circular tar spots that appear on fallen leaves.

Wonder thrives on watching design over time and across seasons. Make simple wonder tracking an integral part of your daily routine.

*A raceme is a flower cluster with the separate flowers attached by short equal stalks at equal distances along a central stem. The flowers at the base of the central stem develop first. Google Dictionary

*An epiphyte is an organism that grows on the surface of a plant and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, water or from debris accumulating around it. Wikipedia

WT LogoCultivate Wonder… Discover Design

Where and When – Considered the second most abundant tree in the Pacific Northwest, Bigleaf Maples are easy to find. To see the beautiful blossoms, start watching in early spring.

Wonder Triggers for Young Trackers

  • Use a magnifying glass to examine the life growing on the trunk of a Bigleaf Maple tree.  How many different kinds of mosses, lichens, ferns, etc can you find?  Use a sketch pad to draw what you see or take close up photos of each species.
  • Find one raceme (flower cluster) and gently dissect it from one end to the other.  How many flowers are there?  Are they attached to the central stem in any kind of pattern? How many petals does each flower have? Do the flowers have a scent? Taste? What other structures can you find coming out of the raceme?
  • Estimate, then measure the width of one big leaf maple leaf. Use a marker to trace the primary veins in one leaf.  Do you see a pattern?  What do you think the veins do for the leaf (tree)?


References and Resources

Wild Food and Medicine

Hansen’s Northwest Native Plants Database

Honey Bee Suite

San Francisco State University

Image Copyright Sharon Pegany, 2018


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