Maples Like You’ve Never Seen Them!

Maples are not considered by most folks to be a flowering tree. Most people won’t even notice them until the fallen flowers collect on the windshields of their vehicles.


A single female flower

Close up, maples flowers are recognizable as flowers. Red maple and sugar maple are the two most common species here in the Catskills. Sugar maples have yellow fall foliage and yellow flower petals. Red maples have red fall foliage and red flower petals. It takes at least twenty years for a maple to become sexually mature and begin flowering.



The pistil of a female flower

Many plants have flowers which have both male and female parts. But individual maple trees usually have flowers that are only one sex; male flowers on one tree and female flowers on another.

A cluster of male flowers

Maples have a skewed sex ratio, that is, there are significantly more of one sex than the other.  Naturally occurring populations of red maple have ratios of 70% male flowered trees to 30% female flowered trees. But the story is not so simple. A few red maples have flowers of both sexes. Also, some male flowering trees may even change sex and begin to produce only female flowers.



Male flowers with pollen-bearing stamens

It was originally thought that maples were pollinated through the agency of insects, because many insects were observed foraging on the flowers. But it has been demonstrated that when insects are excluded, red maples readily set seed. These observed insects are probably hungry opportunists, and the red maple relies not on them but on dispersal of pollen in the air, wind-pollination.  This helps explain the sex ratio, because lots and lots of pollen has to be released to ensure that some of it actually reaches the female flowers. Also in the few maples having both types of flowers the male flowers are borne in the upper branches, while the female flowers are located on lower branches in prime position to catch the pollen drifting down from the upper branches.


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