Maple Feedback

It didn’t take long for an informed reader to respond with a diagnosis for a curiosity brought to light in passing here last week.

I wondered aloud why maple leaves were drying on their stems and dropping prematurely before ever reaching their yellow, orange and red fall splendor. Most perplexing to me, no dendrologist by any stretch, was that I would have expected bright fall colors following a wet spring and summer that would suggest healthy trees and plants. But again, that’s just an unfounded, knee-jerk, pedestrian opinion based on observation totally devoid of scientific training.

Well, not so fast with the prevailing wisdom, which I understand is often buoyed by misconception. So, now the facts, supplied by a reader with knowledge about the subject who preferred not to be named.
“In yesterday’s column, you mention the perplexing amount of browning of maple leaves, given the expectation it would be a good foliage year because we’ve had plentiful rainfall,” she wrote last week. “Unfortunately, lots of rain also means lots of fungal leaf diseases. It’s been a particularly banner year for one called maple anthracnose.”

She went on to cite a passage from last week’s UMass Extension Service “Landscape Message,” which reported that: Scattered sugar maples are browning and will not be producing their normal brilliant fall color. In some cases, this is due to maple anthracnose, which has been widespread and destructive this season. Several different fungi are responsible for maple anthracnose, which is initiated by abundant early season rainfall.

Accompanying this helpful information, my source sent a UMass/Amherst Web link explaining the pest named anthracnose of maple, with the subtitles “Hosts,” “Symptom and Disease Cycle” and “Management.”

The disease attacks sugar, red, Norway, silver and Japanese maples, which covers most if not all of our maples here in this slice of paradise. And this makes sense to me, given what I’ve observed in resent travels along the Green River and its Hinsdale Brook tributary that flows through my backyard. Floating downstream are maple leaves of varying size and color.

Now, a little subplot that came my way quite by chance and telephone Wednesday morning. The questioner, a neighborhood reader responding to last week’s column, had a question about maple trees’ helicopter seeds, which seem to be clinging to their stems long after the trees lose their leaves. A farmer with university training about plants and trees, not to mention more than six decades of Greenfield Meadows observation, the man opines that the seeds are usually long gone by the time the leaves fall.

Hmmmmm? Back to our unnamed female source, introduced above, for the potential answer. Well, she did her best, but without input from her resident plant pathologist, who is out of work until next week.
Although she  won’t be able to check with him about what might be going on until Monday, she responded to my Wednesday email and did share what she’d  gleaned from other sources, plus threw in a little personal extrapolation:

“We had a heavy seed-set this year for a combination of reasons, so the seeds are even more obvious than usual. Factors are: the timing of spring frosts didn’t kill many flower buds, so more flowers than usual turned to seed; maples tend to produce a massive quantity of seed in two- to five-year cycles; and an over-abundance of seeds can indicate the tree experienced stress the previous year, likely from last year’s drought. Producing a bumper crop of seeds is the tree’s way of carrying on the species, should the stress continue and the tree die off.

“Different varieties vary widely when the seeds ripen and fall, though sugar maples tend to hang on to theirs, sometimes not dropping them until after leaf fall. Seems to me we haven’t had any high wind events in the last few weeks (thunderstorms, hurricanes, etc.) that would hasten knocking them off the trees.

“So, that’s my thought — a mast year for seeds, making them more obvious, and not enough windy weather yet to knock them down. I’ll check with our plant pathologist next week to see if he has any other thoughts.”

The extension service recommends removing diseased leaves from the ground under maple trees in an effort to prevent the fungus from taking root and returning next year. That goes especially in areas with many young trees in the understory. Mature maples apparently do a better job of fighting off disease than their immature offspring.

Myself, I’d be more inclined to let nature take its course. The maples that survive, young and old, will probably be better off for it. The ones that don’t make it will make room for fresh growth. Since when did trees ever need humans to survive? That’s a self-serving timber-industry myth. Recent research says forests are more than capable of managing themselves. Don’t doubt it.

Stay tuned.


For the record, mention of this maple-tree conundrum in last week’s column came in the form of introductory digression in a story about me flushing a bald eagle hunting a maturing brood of common mergansers where I walk along the Green River daily.

The day the column hit the street, say 11 a.m., I was releasing my dogs from their porta-kennels for our daily walk when I caught sight of a fisherman trudging along a tree line toward his parked Chevy Blazer, which I had just passed a short distance up the road. On a whim, I decided to change my normal path and intercept him to see what he caught. Well, as it turned out, he was the type of angler (there are many) who is willing to give up little information; basically a “That’s for me to know and you to find out” kinda guy.

His body language screaming that he wasn’t eager to chat, I ignored the signals and approached him. I didn’t introduce myself (he looked vaguely familiar), just cut off his path to inquire how he’d done.
“Nothing,” he said, spinning gear in hand, which may or may not have been true. I have all summer seen random trout rise along this stretch of the river and told him so. Like the fish, I guess, he just wasn’t biting. Not in the information-giving mood. I knew better than to press him. For what? I knew the trout were there.

I changed gears and launched into a quick query about prematurely dying and falling maple leaves. Had he noticed? If so, any insights?

He surprised me in two ways. First, that he was willing to engage in the discussion, and second, to off a hypothesis.

“Whether you know it or not,” he informed me, “we’re experiencing a late-summer drought. The leaves are falling because the trees are dry.”

Hmmmmm? Was I missing something? Had I not detected a drought despite observing and actually walking along and/or through a couple of neighborhood waterways daily? It didn’t seem like a drought to me.

Back home near a phone, I placed a call to my buddy Killer. He keeps a large vegetable garden in Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and would know if we were in the midst of a drought I hadn’t detected. “No,” he said. “There’s no drought.”

That evening at work, I queried a colleague who toils daily on a commercial family produce farm in my neighborhood. Asked if there’s a late-season drought underway, he flashed an incredulous grin and uttered a knee-jerk negative response, saying almost sarcastically, “Not that I know of.”

Honestly, I didn’t think so, and the rivers and brooks didn’t tell me so, but I never dismiss an angler’s assessment based in river conditions. Maybe he knew something to which I had been oblivious.

Of course, that isn’t to say anglers are always right. When it comes to rainfall and growing seasons, don’t farmers know better?

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