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You Can Grow Maple Trees

Young maple leaves

Maple leaves have such a distinctive shape that people in North America know what you mean when you say something is shaped like a maple leaf. My oldest son, when he was about five years old, collected four maple seeds and sprouted them in a Styrofoam cup.

When my son Matthew was about five years old, he collected four maple seeds and planted them in a Styrofoam cup. The seeds produced four healthy seedlings and Matthew asked if we could plant them in the yard. Then we proceeded to try to kill them.

Maple Seedlings on Vacation

When the seedlings each had started producing leaves, we travelled to Ithaca for a three-day visit with my parents. We returned to wilted maple seedlings in dry soil. I guessed the plants were dry enough that they wouldn’t revive, but we watered them anyway.

mature maple tree

Some varieties of maple tree produce clusters of flowers even before new leaves emerge in spring. Others leaf out and then grow flowers. Inevitably, seeds follow quickly; thousands of seeds that could reforest a yard or garden in just a few years.

Three of the seedlings didn’t come back, but one did. Its original leaves were dry, but more leaves sprouted from its terminal bud and we agreed to plant it in the side yard.

Young Maple Tree in Winter

The maple seedling grew enthusiastically and reached at least 12 inches before dropping its leaves in autumn. Eventually snow fell, and one day I happened by Matthew’s maple seedling only to notice it was considerably shorter than it had been. Some critter had bitten off half the plant!

Maple seed rotocopter

If you garden in a temperate zone, you’re probably familiar with maple seeds. A seed grows at the end of a small wing that acts as a rotocopter. These rotocopters can sail in a heavy wind for miles. More often, they land within dozens of yards of the parent tree. In a lawn, on a forest floor, in a meadow, on a bed of mulch, and even in a rain gutter, the seed-heavy ends quite often land business-side down. So close to potential growing medium, an emergent root easily digs in, giving life to a new sprout.

Incidentally, this photo shows only the rotocopter seed wrapper. The seed fell last spring and a rodent bit open its carrier and ate the good stuff. In posing an appropriate photo, I found hundreds of such rotocopters, all bitten open and emptied in exactly the same way. Given the apparent delectability of maple seeds, it’s easy to see why they must be efficient at taking root once they reach the ground.

Feeling dread, I inverted an empty bucket on the tree to preserve what was left in case what was left had life left. When snow melted away in March, I removed the bucket and a few weeks later, that tenacious maple tree pushed out new leaves.

Pre-emergent Tree Killer

I hadn’t yet developed disdain for lawn, and so I followed the annual lawn care regimen of applying pre-emergent weed killer and fertilizer before the blossoms fell off the forsythia (rule of thumb for lawn enthusiasts). Never occurred to me to notice that Matthew’s little tree caught a snootful of weed killer.

Another rule of thumb for lawn enthusiasts: that poisonous stuff you broadcast on your grass kills a lot more than just broadleaf weeds. The leaves on Matthew’s abused maple tree shriveled and I was sure the plant was done. But no! The sickly leaves never recovered, but after a month the tree put out new leaves and started to look healthy once more.

Maple seeds will sprout anywhere

I found dozens of year-old maple seedlings growing in the yard at my dad’s house and chose two very unlikely ones to include in this post. The seedling on the left grows from otherwise barren soil next to a rock that guides rainwater runoff away from the house (note the rotocopter end of a maple seed directly in front of the seedling’s stem). The seedling on the right took root between the front steps and the front walk. This is a crack filled with pebbles through which roots would have to go about tthree inches before finding soil.

Untapped Root

By mid-season Matthew’s beleaguered maple tree was tall enough to make me realize I’d made a huge mistake: The tree was too close to the house and would eventually prevent us from driving large vehicles on the lawn to the back yard. We don’t drive there often, but access is important. The maple tree had to move.

15 year old maple tree

The tree on the left in this photo is Matthew’s 15 year old maple tree. It’s now as tall as a nearby tree that was already full-grown when we moved into our house 18 years ago. (The red tree to the right only looks as tall because it’s much closer to the camera.) From a modest seed to a 40 foot tall, climbable tree in just 15 years—and that with four serious attempts on its life! You can grow that.

Stunted as it was from all the abuse, Matthew’s tree had a robust root system. Even after I dug out the roots that extended horizontally from the trunk, it was a much bigger chore to go after the tap root; I failed. I eventually chopped through the tap root, which I understand can significantly weaken a plant and, in the case of a tree, make the plant less stable in high winds.

Fortunately, the tree grew vigorously in its new location just a few yards from where it had spent more than a year. Unfortunately, the tree produced epicormic sprouts—weak branches along the trunk and at the base of the tree that somehow seem out of place. A forester once explained to me such branches grow in response to stress.

But it grows! Now all of 15 years old, Matthew’s tree is nearly as tall as another in our yard that was already mature when we bought the house. We tried pretty hard to kill that maple tree. We failed. It persevered. Want a maple tree in your yard? You can grow that!

Learn about You Can Grow That and find other participating blogs at the movement’s website: You Can Grow That!

One Response to “You Can Grow Maple Trees”

  • Maples- especially Norway maples- certainly will grow anywhere! I’ve pulled them from the most unlikely spots, and potted them up, and 90% of them survive. The most unlikely one so far, though, was one I just found.

    We use an aged Subaru wagon for gardening jobs. We bring home bags of weeds, leaves, etc from jobs and throw them in the compost. A few things fall out of the bags. Last week I noticed something green in the back of the car. A maple seed had sprouted, after a winter stratifying, in the back. I pulled on it and discovered that it had rooted into the damp carpet. Pulling removed all feeder roots and just left the tap root. I potted it up anyway.

    It’s doing fine.

    I suspect that means it’s a Norway maple; they’ll grow in concrete, I think. The Japanese maples and northwest native ones I have sprouted and grown, but the germination rate is much lower than that of the Norways.

    I love that you were able to transplant it like you did. That’s one tough tree!

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