Trees of the Adirondacks:
Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum)
Mountain Maple (Acer spicatum Lam.) is a shrub-like tree with three-lobed, coarsely toothed leaves. Its upright greenish-yellow flowers bloom in June in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.
Mountain Maple is one of 14 maple species in New York State. Nine of these (including Mountain Maple) occur in counties that fall within the Adirondack Park. In addition to Mountain Maple, the most common maples found inside the Blue Line are:
The genus name (Acer) is the Latin word for "maple." The species name (spicatum) means "spike-bearing." This is a reference to the spike-like flower clusters that appear after the leaves are fully formed.
Other common names for Mountain Maple include Low Maple, Water Maple, and Eastern Mountain Maple. Mountain Maple may also be referred to as Moose Maple – a reference to the plant's use as a winter browse by Moose. The author name (Lamarck) is a reference to French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who died in 1829.
Identification of Mountain Maple
Mountain Maple is a deciduous understory tree, which is sometimes classified as a shrub. It grows ten to twenty feet tall. Mountain Maple has a short, crooked trunk, often branching near the base into several ascending branches, and a small, rounded crown. The bark is reddish to brown. The root system is shallow.
Mountain Maple leaves are simpleSimple Leaf: A leaf with a single undivided blade, as opposed to a compound leaf, which is one that is divided to the midrib, with distinct, expanded portions called leaflets., meaning that they are not separated into leaflets.
- The leaves are oppositeOpposite Leaves: Leaves occurring in pairs at a node, with one leaf on either side of the stem., meaning that there are two leaves per node along the stem.
- The leaf bladeBlade: The broad, flat portion of a leaf, where photosynthesis occurs. is 2¾ to 3½ inches long and nearly as wide. Mountain Maple leaves have three (occasionally five) lobesLobe: A projection from an edge of a plant structure (such as a leaf), larger than a tooth. Lobed leaves are leaves with distinct protrusions, either rounded or pointed. and coarse teethTeeth: The saw-toothed edges of a leaf.. The lobes are broad, with shallow, broadely v-shaped sinusesSinus: In leaves with lobes, the indented area between two lobes. (the notch between the lobes). The base of the leaf is rounded to heart-shaped.
- Mountain Maple leaves are green and hairless above. The thin, somewhat papery leaves have a network of delicate veinsVein: A vessel that conducts nutrients, sugars, and other substances throughout plant tissues; usually associated with leaves. The arrangement of veins in a leaf is called the venation pattern. which give the leaf a somewhat quilted appearance. The lower surface of the leaves is paler and usually covered with soft, whitish hairs. The foliage turns yellow, then mottled orange, reddish orange, or bright red in autumn.
- The stalk of the leaf is two to three inches long, often red.
Mountain Maple flowers are greenish-white to yellow and appear after the leaves are fully developed.
- The flowers appear in an erect, terminal cluster, with male flowers near the tip and female flowers near the base.
- The flower cluster (inflorescenceInflorescence: A group or cluster of flowers arranged on a stem. ) is a paniclePanicle: A branched, indeterminate flower cluster (inflorescence) with individual flowers on stalks (pedicels). (meaning a flower cluster that is branched with the individual flowers on stalks). The cluster is 1½ to 3 inches tall and an inch or more wide.
- Individual flowers are about ¼ to ½ inches across.
- The flower stalks are ¼ to ⅜ inches long and hairy.
In the High Peaks region of the Adirondacks, Mountain Maple usually blooms in mid- to late June. Mountain Maples in the eastern foothills of the Adirondacks bloom somewhat earlier, in late May, while plants just southeast of the Blue Line may be seen in bloom in mid-May.
The fruit of Mountain Maples is a pair of winged seeds (called a samaraSamara: A type of dry fruit where one seed is surrounded by papery tissue that helps carry the seed away from the tree as the wind blows. ). Mountain Maple samaras are typically ¾ to an inch long on short stalks and appear in drooping clusters. The winged seeds are often pink or rosy red, later turning yellow, then brown, before falling in early winter. In the Adirondacks, look for Mountain Maple in fruit starting in July.
Keys to identifying Mountain Maple and differentiating it from other maples include its growth habit, the shape of its leaves, the arrangement of its flowers, and its bark.
- Mountain Maple can be distinguished from Sugar Maple by the shape of its leaves. Sugar Maple leaves have five lobes, and the edges are smooth between the points, in contrast to Mountain Maple's coarse teeth. Sugar Maple flowers appear in drooping clusters, rather than the upright clusters of Mountain Maple. The growth habit is very different. Sugar Maples are large trees growing growing 50-70 feet tall, with a straight, single trunk, while Mountain Maples are short, shrubby plants.
- Like Mountain Maple, Red Maple leaves are also coarsely toothed and have three major lobes, sometimes with two smaller lobes near the base. However, Red Maple's lobes are narrowly pointed and the sinusesSinus: In leaves with lobes, the indented area between two lobes. (the notches between the lobes) are V-shaped. In addition, Red Maple's flowers are red and appear before the leaves appear, contrasting with Mountain Maples yellowish flowers which appear after the leaves have developed. Moreover, like the Sugar Maple, the Red Maple is a large tree growing up to 90 feet tall, in contrast to Mountain Maple's shrubby growth habit.
The plant most likely to be confused with Mountain Maple is the Striped Maple.
- Both are understory trees or large shrubs.
- Both have three-lobed leaves which are more shallowly lobed than those of either Red Maple or Sugar Maple. Striped Maple leaves, however, are finely double-toothed, while the leaves of Mountain Maple (which tend to be somewhat smaller) have coarse teeth.
- The bark is another clue. The bark of the Striped Maple is greenish with distinctive white stripes when the tree is young, contrasting with the darker bark of Mountain Maple.
Uses of Mountain Maple
Mountain Maple has limited uses. The wood is of no economic value and is not used commercially. Native Americans used this plant to treat several medical conditions, including coughs, sore eyes, and wounds. The wood was also used to make arrows.
Wildlife Value of Mountain Maple
Mountain Maple is important as a browse for several mammal species.
- Mountain Maple is listed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as a preferred winter food for White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), based on thousands of observations in deer wintering areas over many years from all parts of the state.
- Mountain Maple is also used, although apparently to a lesser extent, by Moose (Alces alces).
- American Beaver (Castor canadensis) are also said to browse on the plant when aspens are not available.
Mountain Maple is of lesser importance for birds and insects. Ruffed Grouse reportedly eat the buds, while the plant is used as a nest site by Black-throated Blue Warblers. Some species of beetles and aphids also make use of the plant.
Distribution of Mountain Maple
Mountain Maple grows in the eastern regions of the US and Canada. This plant occurs from Newfoundland to Saskatchewan in Canada, south to Connecticut, Ohio, Michigan, and northern Iowa, and in the mountains to western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
In New York State, Mountain Maple has been documented in almost all counties in the eastern half of the state. It is found in all counties within the Adirondack Park Blue Line.
Habitat of Mountain Maple
Mountain Maple has medium moisture and nutrient requirements, and low heat and light requirements. It is our least shade-tolerant maple. It can tolerate strong sunlight better than Striped Maple. Mountain Maple prefers rich, moist soils on rocky slopes and flats, but can also grow well on drier or well-drained acid soils.
Mountain Maple is most common on exposed ledges and steep slopes and along streams. It is a common understory tree between 2,500 and 3,000 feet in the transition zone between northern hardwoods and spruce-fir.
In the Adirondack region, Mountain Maples are found in several hardwood and mixed wood ecological communities, including:
For example, Mountain Maple is a common understory tree in the Spruce-Northern Hardwood Forest – a mixed forest which is one of the most common forest types in the Adirondack Park.
- Co-dominant trees are Red Spruce, Sugar Maple, American Beech, Red Maple and Yellow Birch. Scattered Balsam Fir is also found.
- Another common sub-canopy tree in this ecological community, often found growing near Mountain Maple, is the Striped Maple.
- Characteristic shrubs include Hobblebush, Canada Yew, and American Fly Honeysuckle.
- On the forest floor, look for Common Wood Sorrel, Wild Sarsaparilla, Goldthread, Clintonia, Bunchberry, Canada Mayflower, and Indian Cucumber-root. Characteristic ferns include the Intermediate Wood Fern and the Hay-scented Fern.
- Characteristic birds include Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, White-throated Sparrow, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Pileated Woodpecker, and Gray Jay.
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