Group Of Seven - Number Seven - Red Maple
by Dan Clost
November 16, 2008

Sometimes, as gardeners, we tend to focus in on our own little bits of this good earth. We get so caught up that we don't always look at the larger picture. We can't see the forest for the trees, so to speak. In Canada, we are blessed with an abundant variety of beautiful trees. Is there anyone amongst us, so hardened, that we don't catch our breath when looking out at the colourful tapestry of an autumn wood. When you look out at the fall colours note which one catches and holds your gaze. The yellows and oranges of birches and sugar maples, the deep greens of pines and firs, the russet browns of oaks and beeches may warm the heart, but its the blazing scarlets and crimsons of the red maple that fires the spirit. One might view this tree as being quintessentially Canadian in spite of its relatively limited range.

In this seventh and final column of our continuing series of the Group of Seven Canadian Trees we look at the red maple, Acer rubrum. As a bit of an aside, Gentle Reader, I’ve been asked why I chose this theme. Here is what Fred Varley wrote in a 1914 letter: “We are endeavouring to knock out of us all of the preconceived ideas, emptying ourselves of everything except that nature is here in all its greatness, and we are here to gather it and understand it...” As a commentary on painting, this was revolutionary: related to gardening, equally remarkable.

For me gardening is an opportunity to explore and appreciate nature. I don’t see anything wrong with formal gardens and estates as long as we walk softly whilst creating them. Also in 1914, A.Y. Jackson produced The Red Maple. Staid and reactionary art critics of the day labelled this as a product of the Hot Mush School. We need to thank them because their condemnation brought this new style to the attention of the art world.

(One more aside, GR. It is possible that Jackson’s painting is that of the mountain maple, Acer spicatum, given its twigginess, depending upon his understanding of botany.)

As with all plants, the folks living here since... well since folks have been living here... found a variety of uses for red maple. Bark extract as an astringent for sore eyes, sap for sugar where sugar and black maple were not present, and there is some suggestive evidence that the bark may have been a component in blue dye for fabrics in the 17th century. Red maple is also filling an important ecological function in that it is a host for the extremely rare jellyfish lichen.

Gardening on a large scale usually involves trees and that can be problematic especially since we only have an urban lot with which to work whilst nature had free reign to create her masterpiece. It is important to understand that inviting a tree into your estate represents a substantial investment in space. Fortunately there are many varieties of small to medium sized trees from which we can select for our palette.

The red maple grows in a variety of soils but does well in swamps and other low-lying areas. Mature height is up 25 metres under ideal conditions most cultivars are in the 16 to 19 metre range. In the wild it has a life span of 100 years. In its natural habitat you might find it sharing space with tamarack, river birch, black willow, pussy willow, alders and witchhazel .Looking at neighbours, GR, is always a good place to get ideas if you are creating a natural landscape. Conservation areas and school yards often use this selection method.

Acer rubrum is an excellent choice for a boulevard tree or a front lawn specimen, much better than any of the Norway maples.

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