October – Sugar Maple


When I was young, Sunday mornings were for pancakes. It was a simple rule started by my dad, but no one in my family argued with it. I will always remember the smell of them cooking on the griddle as it wafted up to my room, which promptly got me out of bed. 

Once I had a stack in front of me, my favorite topping came in a big glass pitcher with the words “Vermont’s Finest” etched across it. That amber-colored vessel with its rich, viscous contents inside was a must-have for those Sunday mornings, and I have October’s tree of the month to thank for it. 

The sugar maple (Acer saccharum), sometimes called the hard maple, sugartree, bird’s-eye maple, or rock maple, is a common tree found in the Philadelphia area and is one of the largest and most important of the hardwood species. It can be found in the entire Northeast part of the US, the Great Lakes region, down south into Appalachia, and across the Mississippi River into Missouri. All these regions provide cool, moist climates essential to the sugar maple’s growth. 

Identifying this tree is relatively easy. This species can reach heights of up to 50-70 feet tall, and their shape depends on their environment. For instance, individuals in forests lack branches on the lower half of their trunks and form narrow rounded crowns, while trees in an open area are oval shaped with upswept lower branches and straight upper branches. 

The sugar maple’s bark is going to be smooth and gray when the tree is young, but as it ages, it will become furrowed, scaly, and dark gray. Like other maples, sugar maples have opposite, lobed leaves. The difference is that sugar maple leaves have “u” shaped margins between their pointy lobes while other species are “v” shaped. 

In late winter when the thaw begins, finding a tree with a small metal tap plugged into its trunk may be the biggest giveaway. That means temperatures are rising and sap is flowing. 

Maple syrup, that delicious substance that I spoke of moments ago, is the byproduct of harvesting sap from sugar maples, a process done right here in rural Pennsylvania. But the sweet yield is quite literally a national treasure. In 2021, three states (Vermont, New York, and Maine) produced 4.16 million gallons of maple syrup, which was valued at more than $100 million, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. 

The valuable properties of the sugar maple haven’t been a secret for some time, though. Native Americans – including the Algonquin, Cherokee, Dakota, and Iroquois – used the sugar maple’s properties to enhance their day-to-day life. Maple sap was a common ingredient for syrup, sugar, food seasoning, and vinegar, and the bark could be made into a beverage. Lumber from felled trees was used for furniture, paddles, torches, and cookware. 

Just like the Native Americans, we use the sugar maple for a myriad of different things. The list is long, but paneling, flooring, trim, tool handles, sporting goods, bowling pins, and instruments are just a few. 

Now that you know what this tree looks like and how it’s valued, you might recall seeing one if you’ve taken a recent visit to Awbury. Potentially one of the most iconic specimens on our grounds is the massive sugar maple directly in front of the Cope House. Every fall, it turns into a resplendent display of fiery red and orange, as if it’s a beacon for those curious about the arboretum. 

Other sugar maples have been at the center of the Philadelphia public eye as well, notably the individual that stood proud on Belmont Plateau. Standing alone on a large expanse of lawn for almost a century, the tree was cut down in December 2021 due to deterioration. Given it was exposed at the top of a hill and lacked the forest for protection and nurturing, the tree lived a considerably long life. 

While cut a bit short (and also acknowledging that anybody would consider living almost 100 years an incredible milestone), it was a life that inspired many to gather together for sledding, picnics, or gazing at the city skyline under its boughs. It’s this kind of innate power that trees often emanate, oftentimes without us even knowing it.