Arbor Day Giants

spring flowers

It’s a day to celebrate the trees.  If you plan to hug a tree, you might choose the majestic Big Leaf Maple, a native to the west coast. You would, however, have a challenge getting your arms around these gentle giants.  They are pollinating this week, covering everything in a fine yellow dust. The pollen settles on every surface and outlines the leaves of all the plants below its canopy as it settles into the thin lines caused by the veins of leaves. It is making me miserable with itchy nose and eyes, but it does not alter my love affair with them. I’ve never seen such heavy pollination from these grand trees as is going on this year. I pick up a lawn chair to sit in the warm sun and a yellow cloud rises from it!

Mature Maples can grow to 100 feet tall with a canopy spread to 50 feet. Their protecting branches are umbrellas in a spring rain and shade shelter on a hot summer day. I have measured leaves 12″ across. They are the largest North American maple tree.

Everyone loves Big Leaf Maples. The sapsucker is back for another year of nesting in the ones on the driveway near the house. All our resident woodpeckers dine on Maples regularly. Squirrels make them their homes and use them as their highway system. Covered with thick mosses of various colors and species, there are micro worlds on each tree, bugs living busy lives who never leave the tree. These mossy worlds are the 24 hour diners that attract all manner of birds and critters.

People too can dine on these big Maples. The blossoms of Big Leaf Maple are edible, you can add them to spring salads, and those whirly seed pods, called samaras, can be eaten, usually with the ‘wings’ removed and often cooked. Though dried they can provide winter nutrition, they are better and less bitter when greener. Native people would peel young maple shoots in the spring and eat the tender flesh.

Though the sugar content is low, you can make syrup from Big Leaf Maples. The US Forest Service has a 1972 brochure on how to do this.

fall color

Coastal tribes used Big Leaf Maple wood to make many functional items from boxes to dishes and pipes and paddles. The inner bark can be made into baskets and rope.  Maple wood is used commercially for furniture, interior trim wood, and musical instruments. Sadly, here locally, poachers have cut giant Maples off private land to sell for the prized wood.

Big Leaf Maples  die slowly, occasionally letting go of an old rotting branch. The giant limbs fall to the ground in wind storms or when their weight is too much for the tree to bear, where they continue to be a home and a food supply for many critters.

In the fall, if the weather is right, the huge leaves of this gentle giant of a tree turn bright yellow (if a wet fall, they turn more brown before falling) and carpet the ground, eventually rotting into the soil around its base, providing nutrients for the baby Maples that will grow from the those whirly, rotating seed pods as they too make their autumn descent.

These giant yellow trees are a beautiful contrast to the evergreen trees who are their neighbors throughout their coastal homelands.

Other tree posts:

Oak Lady of San Juan Island

For the Love of Trees

Jody and the Cottonwoods

Flutter Tree


For The Love of Trees

January 1872, J. Sterling Morton used his status as a prominent, successful journalist and editor, to propose there be a holiday in Nebraska, where he lived, to plant trees on April 10th of that year.  Morton was a passionate and knowledgeable arborist. That was the first Arbor Day.  Prizes were given to counties and towns for planting the most trees and it was estimated over one million trees were planted in Nebraska that day. Later Arbor Day became an official Nebraska holiday and moved to Morton’s birthday. Eventually other states adopted Arbor Day and the day settled upon for most places was the last Friday in April, though often states set dates more ideal for planting trees in their region.

Here in Washington, the Washington State Legislature designated Washington’s Arbor Day as the second Wednesday in April, which this year was April 11th, 140 years and one day from the first Arbor Day.

Arbor Day, and the Arbor Day Foundation (founded in 1972 on the centennial of Arbor Day), is designed to encourage people to plant and care for trees.  In recent years Earth Day, April 22, which began in 1970, often overshadows Arbor Day, with a larger, global and multifaceted agenda. Yet for obvious reasons, the two go hand in hand. Without trees, not much else on earth will survive.

I am a tree lover. In fact I have a tree lover.  It is a stately beauty (to my eyes) I saw from a distance about five years ago, a fir that seemed to stand out from its neighboring fir buddies due to a bluish/grey tint to its bark.  It is a secret affair. We hug, well I hug, and chat a bit with it when I am in its vicinity.  It has been there for me through many difficult times and I comfort it when winter storms bring down its huge branches. Although my husband knows about this affair, they have never met.

He (my husband Mike) is also a tree lover. His particular fondness is for Big Leaf Maples. He is always proclaiming one Maple or another to be the LARGEST Big Leaf Maple he has ever seen.  During his years as a tree-planter Mike estimates he planted half a million trees, all conifers, mostly first.  When we are driving around on the Olympic Peninsula, or traveling in some other area of the state where he planted, he will point out a section where ‘his’ 20 or 30 year old seedling-children have grown to be fine young strapping trees.  He continues to plant seedlings here and there in the woods where trees have fallen or we have had to take down a tree or two.

We did not plant any trees this Arbor Day, in fact a few weekends ago Mike fell a small Big Leaf Maple that grew back from the stump of a tree he took down several years ago.  It is a playful game between him and the maples, they never die, they just start over and we enjoy them until they become ‘problematic’ in their over abundance of shade, or their limbs threaten to fall on the house.  We live among hundreds of trees and we kindly have to explain to some that we too need a bit of space to thrive.  It is with reverence we remove a tree, and it is with gratitude we appreciate the warmth it provides us in our home. A large fir, fallen by a winter storm, became the beams of our meditation building.  A true gift of life.

I can go on and on about trees, about particular trees, like the unusually large and beautifully colorful Red Osier Dogwood out my window, or the wonderful pungent scent of fresh-cut Alder, or the little Grand Fir on the trail we have walked around and watched grow for decades, or about my cousin Shaun’s Oak Tree Restoration project on San Juan Island.  Like many residents on the ‘wet side’ of the Evergreen State, trees are omnipresent in my life.

If Arbor Day here in Washington passed you by, remember any day is a good day to plant a tree, care for a tree, hug a tree.  At the rate the world’s largest forests are being deforested, Morton’s idea to set aside a day to encourage the planting of trees has never been more relevant. If you join the National Arbor Foundation they will send you free seedlings to plant. If you are looking for some native trees to plant, we may have a few seedlings to share!

With enough moisture, Big Leaf Maple trees host moss, which in turn hosts young ferns, all under the protection of the huge tree branches with its umbrella canopy.

A wonderful book to read about one man’s passion for trees is My Life My Trees, written by Richard St. Barbe Baker, the “Tree Man”. The autobiography of this remarkable man, who inspired the founding of the Civil Conservation Corp, as well as organizations around the world for reforestation, is the story of a man who impacted the world one tree at a time, and by writing 30 books!

Another book I enjoyed reading is The Attentive Heart, Conversations with Trees by Stephanie Kaza. The author interweaves her personal biography and relationships with trees, giving voice to, and interesting information about, the trees.