Monday, May 25, 2009

In praise of Manitoba maples

The Manitoba Maple (Acer negundo) is not an especially well-loved tree. It is often disparaged by those who know something about trees, as well as by those who aren't able to name it on sight but who don't like the looks of it just the same. It is far from majestic. It is fast growing, short lived, and does not reach impressive heights. You're more often to find them growing crooked than straight, often in clumps. While it's part of the same family of trees as the sugar maples and red maples Canadians adore and whose leaves grace our money and airplanes, the Manitoba maple's leaves are unremarkable jagged little clusters that turn a flat yellow in autumn, falling to the ground in a heap as opposed to the graceful fluttering arc of its showier cousins' leaves.

The first house I ever owned (in Hespeler) had an unusually large and perfectly formed Manitoba maple in an unusual location - in the center of the back yard. The home inspector took one look and said "You'll want to take that down, it's a weed". Needless to say I did not. In a city with hot, steamy summers and poor summertime air quality, the last thing I was going to do was remove its dense canopy and deep shade - I stuck a bench under it instead, and sat under it often.

The Manitoba Maple is in many ways the perfect urban tree. It will grow just about anywhere, on the most degraded excuse for soil, and is tolerant to heat, drought, road salt and just about any other stress city life can place on it. I inherited a half-dozen growing out of an old rock wall that separates my downtown Ottawa home's back yard from an apartment building parking lot; there are a few more shading my front yard from the noise of a busy street. They form a solid green wall all summer long, giving me far more privacy than any fence could. Unlike the ubiquitous Norway maples that municipalities and developers plant along the sidewalk, the Manitoba maple is a native to Canada, and wildlife prefers the Manitobas. There are always birds in them - chickadees, cardinals, summertime sparrows, even the odd woodpecker. I have a tall Norway maple in my yard that turns a brilliant orange-red in autumn and casts a lot of shade, but except for the odd squirrel using it as a highway, I rarely see animals in it.

I have also read that Manitoba maples make good table syrup. Because the sugar content of their sap is lower than that of the appropriately-named sugar maple, people in eastern Canada never used the Manitoba for this purpose. But out west where there are no sugar maples, the early settlers made do with Manitoba maple syrup. I'm tempted to try tapping my own Manitobas one of these springs and see for myself.

If you wanted Manitobas of your own, you would be hard pressed to find someone to sell you one. In most of the places you find them, they're there because they planted themselves (or had help from an obliging squirrel or bird). If you are going down a street and see an oasis of scrappy trees growing in an abandoned industrial lot or lining a bleak-looking alley, chances are there are Manitobas among them. They're the advance members of Nature's reclamation team, delivering shade and creating organic material so that other organisms might recolonize what we humans have trashed. So if you've got a sun-parched patch of land on your property where nothing seems to grow, sneak down that back alley with a small shovel and an empty flower pot, and bring yourself home a small Manitoba maple start. If it can thrive in an alley, imagine how well it will do for you in a place where it is wanted.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My sentiments exactly. Very well said.