This post is about Helicopters. No, sorry to disappoint, I am not talking about the Royal Baby’s father, pilot Prince William. I am talking about the fruit of the Maple Tree Family. The Maples constitute the family Aceraceae.
Like most things, tree ID ultimately boils down to reproduction. What is the little unit from which the next generation emerges? Except for those that use cones (conifers) for makin’ babies, trees are angiosperms. Angio from the Greek meaning vessel and sperm… got it. Tree flowers are usually subtle compared with the non-woody garden varieties. They can work through wind pollination aka the Oaks whose yellow sperm coats your car before the tree even gets leaves in early spring and if you are unlucky like me creates an angry immune response in your delicate self. Fancier tree flowers may collaborate with a pollinator to achieve their ends, exemplified by our old friend the Paw Paw. Whatever their chosen form of sexual expression, once in awhile they actually get the dang job done and unite the DNA of male and female parts from separate individuals (sometimes from the same tree but usually not from the same flower-even though some flowers, called “perfect” have both male and female repro units) to create a unique genetic potential inside a fetal seed. Seeds have very interesting (and very varied) goals as well. Some would like to be eaten, some would like to avoid being eaten, some would like to float down a river to a nice damp habitat and some would like to blow away. They say, as you know, that the Apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. But it might like to. Those things aren’t round by accident. If you land right under your mama you will have a difficult time getting enough sun, and, as you grow, having space for your roots and all the junk in your trunk. So it is to an apple’s advantage to roll with the punches.
You can stare all day at a tree’s buds or leaves or bark and make many accurate assumptions about who and what it really is. But in the end its scientific identity comes down to who and what it can make babies with and what form those freaky little fetus seeds take. In the case of the Maple family, that is the form commonly called a helicopter, and botanically called a Samara. This biddy is designed with flight in mind as any schoolchild can tell you. Maples have very recognizable leaves generally, although you can see the Japanese Maple leaves that my Mantid friend was hanging out on have been cultivated like crazy into quite the dramatic version of themselves in both shape and year-round red color. Many Maples do originate in and continue to populate the continent of Asia, although there are plenty of gorgeous natives here, namely the infamous Sugar Maple, Mountain Maples, and Striped Maples (3 generally found just a bit farther North or West) the Red Maple (of swamp and Truffula flower infamy) and the Silver Maple both of which are all over Maryland. There are also a lot of Norway Maples, which sadly are invasive meaning that these foreigners, unlike the Japanese Maples, are elbowing out some native species from their niches and makin’ things a little rough. Norway Maple samaras are unique for growing at nearly a 180 degree angle, so that the paired seeds form their ‘copter in what looks like almost a straight line.
But there is another Acer genus friend native to these parts. It is the easy to miss Box Elder, Acer negundo. Box Elders are fun to ID in the winter because they have green new growth (their fresh twigs stay green all winter) smell like a butt when you scratch and sniff those twigs, and have very crazy disorganized growth all out of the base of the trunk. They like to be near water and don’t typically grow to be very large. But once the spring comes and they leaf out, all the trees have green twigs and these guys blend into the background. Their leaves are not shaped like a Maple’s!! They look like any old simple (single) leafed tree with no lobes to create a distinct shape. But in the end their definitive ID can be made using, of course, their fruits!! These gals have helicopters come mid-summer. It is very specifically the gals: Box Elder trees have either all male or all female flowers, and like humans the seeds grow on the lady plants. I stopped to stare at some leaves while running up a hill the other day (it was a very steep hill so I can’t pretend I stopped only because there was a tree in the forest). And lo, hark, hallelujah, there tucked back under the foliage I saw them.
Samaras, paired together just the way a Maple’s branches grow. The first time I ever took a tree class, the following blew my mind: Although a Box Elder’s leaves appear to be simple (or possibly Poison Ivy),
they are actually leafLETs, or little appendages of the actual leaf. They come in 3s or 5s on a leaf, and when you hold them together, why, just LOOK what they form!
(a Maple leaf shape! get excited)
Now, while you contemplate the Acer family I am going to go contemplate my Danish family because it is time for a once-a-decade reunion. Supposedly I am not actually Danish, but you will have to show me my eggs to prove it, and good luck seeing one.
See you soon North Sea, and blog readers I return (knockwood) in mid-August to what will no doubt be a whole new world.