The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, March 14, 2003


Sugar maple

This drawing was done in 1978 by Michael Hilton when he was 11 years old. On Sunday, March 2, 2003, his daughter Brianna was in the sugarhouse creating art work which one hopes will be available for this column 25 years from now.

Name: Sugar maple or Acer saccharum; also known as rock maple and hard maple because of its extremely hard wood.

When and where seen: They can be seen all year round in many places in Carlisle along the roadside, on private property visible from the road, and in conservation land. Sugar maples along the roadside, for example those on East Street and Bedford Road, are dying perhaps due to the run-off of salt. This is particularly unfortunate since sugar maples are grand trees capable of living to more than 200 years and achieving trunk diameters of three feet. Salt is harmful to many trees and it also intensifies the effects of drought. One can't help but wonder if the maples are providing an alarm about water quality akin to alarms from the proverbial canaries in the mineshaft or the chickens in Iraq.

Habitat: Sugar maples grow best on moist, deep, well-drained soil that is not strongly acidic. They can be found in pure stands or mixed with other hardwoods. Unlike red maples, they tolerate shade and can do well in the shade of other trees. Sugar maples propagate naturally by seed; the seedlings are readily transplantable in the spring. It would not be hard to start a magnificent specimen tree or a backyard sugarbush (a stand of maples for sugaring).

Description: A large, beautifully shaped, long-lived tree that can reach 100 feet tall. Leaves are 3 to 6 inches wide, wider than they are long, and usually have five lobes (sometimes 3). Leaves are deep red, orange and yellow in the fall. Young trees have smooth, pale brown bark and mature trees have gray, deeply-furrowed bark. As the trees age, long vertical plates of bark tend to curve outwards along one side, and on first glance an old sugar maple could be mistaken for a shagbark hickory. The flowers are greenish-yellow and come out just as the leaves are unfolding.

Friends and relatives: Thirteen species of maple are native to North America. Seven can be found in New England, including the black maple which is as good for sugar production as the sugar maple. This is convenient since they are difficult to distinguish from each other. They also hybridize and produce trees with a range of characteristics further complicating identification.

Bob Hilton prepares for the pour-off. Fire is pushed way back in the furnace and the doors are opened to lower the temperature for this stage of the process. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)
Sugaring: The sap of the sugar maple averages between 2 and 2.5% sugar with "good" trees producing over 3%. Sugar maples over 40 years old or one foot in diameter can safely support one or two taps per season. Larger trees can handle more. On average, each tap yields about 10 gallons of sap per season which in turn yields one quart of syrup.

References: Massachusetts Maple Producers Association at; New England Natives, A Celebration of People and Trees, by Sheila Connor.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito