The following column was written by Graelyn Brashear:
Spring has sprung at the Jersey Shore, but unless you know where to look, you might not have noticed.
Maple trees are some of the earliest plants to show off the inevitable result of longer days and warmer temperatures, putting forth their red, orange or yellow blooms well before the equinox signals the calendar spring.
What it is:
When we think of flowering trees, most of us probably picture cherries or dogwoods, whose petals are unmistakable signs that the season is in full swing.
But all our deciduous trees have flowers. Some, like those of the maple and oak, are less showy than others, but hardly less important ecologically — they’re an important source of nectar in an otherwise barren landscape for bees and other insects. (Incidentally, early rising sap in maples also brings on the maple sugaring season, when producers tap trees to gather and then boil down the sweet liquid into maple syrup.)
To winter-weary tree lovers, the un-fancy little flowers are no less welcome.
Take a look up at the treetops this sunny March Sunday, and you’ll see that many are no longer a bare, stark gray. The maples among us (and some other tree species) have started to develop a warm, fuzzy aura.
Look closely and you’ll see clumps of stringy, pinkish protrusions that look something like coral polyps. Behold: flowers.
Maple flowers are funky. Flowers are a plant’s sex organs, and most plant species have either perfect flowers (male and female parts) or imperfect flowers (male parts on one flower, female parts on another). Plants with imperfect flowers are usually either monoecious (having male and female flowers on the same plant) or dioecious (having female flowers on one plant, males on another).
Got it? Well, some maple species throw that out the window. Among red maples, for instance, you can find trees with exclusively male or exclusively female flowers, a mix of both kinds of imperfect flowers or even a mix of perfect and imperfect flowers.
This hodgepodge means that once you start noticing these early bloomers, you’ll start seeing just how diverse they are, because male and female flowers look decidedly different — males have pollen-baring anthers; females have stigmas, which catch and receive the pollen.
The result is a wide variety of flower colors and shapes among the spring-signaling maples.
Where to find it:
Just about everywhere! Red maples are one of the primary forest species of New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, and the highly adaptable species can grow in a wide variety of ecosystems and soil conditions.
And maples of all species and varieties are cherished as cultivated trees, planted in yards and along streets for their attractive leaf color in the fall, their hardiness to all kinds of conditions and, yes, for their spring blush.
Their blooms are most noticeable when seen en masse.
Who doesn’t love an early sign of spring? Once you know to keep an eye out for subtler bloomers, you’ll see them everywhere.
Going a step further and taking a magnifying glass to the small wonders that are maple flowers — or any flowers — will heighten your appreciation for them.