The numbers of tourists visiting Acadia National Park here in Maine are beginning to dwindle for the season, so those of us who live here are increasingly able to enjoy the park again. My family has a specific loop that we walk every autumn, in October as the foliage is peaking in color, and we continued that tradition last weekend. It was a good opportunity to reconsider the maple tree.
Our most common maple is the red maple (Acer rubrum), which may take a backseat in prestige to the more widely known sugar maples (Acer saccharum) of New England, legendary for their maple syrup production. But the red maple has another trick up its sleeve. In the fall, when the sugar maples, ashes, and birches turn a pretty, golden yellow, the red maple explodes.
Walking through a woodland with such vivid hues overhead and all around is almost overwhelming, a sensory overload. We’re just not accustomed to having the saturation levels cranked to 11 everywhere we look. The dark green fir, spruce, and pine trees offer a contrasting relief to the absurd hyperbole of color the maple paints in the canopy. It’s intense, and short-lived: Within a few weeks, these reds will be gone for the year.
Although the sugar maple (known as “rock maple” by furniture makers) edges out the red in terms of hardness of lumber, this variety is no slouch when it comes to workability and durability. Beautiful figure is common, with “tiger maple” and “birds-eye maple” being some of the more well-known variations.
And although the sugar maple’s spring sap is slightly higher in sugar content, syrup boiled down from tapped red maples is excellent. Even better, in my mind, is the product of a more difficult process of cooking and stirring until all the water’s gone: maple sugar. It is amazing stuff, from a remarkable tree.