by Roy Lukes

Arbor Day And The Silver Maple

Silver maple at Sturgeon Bay High School

Arbor Day, celebrated on April 28 this year, never comes and goes without thinking about my Dad. He planted many trees during his lifetime, studied them and knew how to take good care of them. Some of my best recollections, going back around 45 years, are when he and I hiked into various friends’ woods in search of state record trees. We never established a new record but came to within two or three inches of the state’s largest American beech. Those were such wonderful times!

The silver maple is on my mind today because of a large specimen Charlotte and I measured and photographed yesterday on the front lawn of the Sturgeon Bay High School property. This experience took me back to my boyhood days in Kewaunee and the several huge silver maples growing along the sidewalk of our neighbor’s property across Wisconsin Avenue to the east of our former home.

As much as we enjoyed and valued close-knit friendships with all of our neighbors, there were two things about our neighbor to the east that made my Dad grumble at times. One was their Boston terrier, "Buster," who my Dad swore had been trained to do his morning "duty" on our front lawn every day. The other involved the silver maples, most of whose falling leaves each autumn also ended up on our front lawn.

We hardly ever drive past the Sturgeon Bay High School without casting an admiring glance at the stately maple and finally, after all these years, we took the time to "shake hands" with the old veteran. It turned out to be around 165.6 inches (13.8 feet) in circumference, measured at 4 ½ feet above the ground. Its height is about 97 feet. While the tree is not nearly a state record it’s a mighty fine specimen. In fact there aren’t a lot of trees in the county that I know of that are larger in circumference other than a few immense eastern cottonwoods.

Maples in the U.S. range in size from, for example, the mountain maple having a circumference of 30 inches or usually fewer to the largest of all maples on our continent, the bigleaf maple of the West. The record of this species, growing in Clatsop County, Oregon, has a circumference of 419 inches. That figures out to be 34.9 feet around.

The silver maple is Wisconsin’s largest maple species. In fact the largest silver maple in the U.S. today is in Columbia County, Wisconsin. Its measurements are: circumference, 293 inches (24.4 feet); height, 115 feet; and average crown spread of 110 feet. A tree’s size is listed in record books as "total points." This figure is obtained by adding the tree’s circumference in inches to its height in feet, and finally to one-fourth of its average crown spread in feet. The national record silver maple has a total point number of 436.

In the case that you may wish to see a really gigantic silver maple in this region, the one growing at 915 S. Quincy St. in Green Bay has a circumference of 247 inches, around 20.6 feet.

The silver maple, like its large relative, the red maple, is termed as a soft maple, a species that is a vigorous grower and does best in river bottoms, floodplains, and along ponds and lakes. One of the reasons that it has not been planted much along city streets is that is has a history of splitting in storms as well as bringing about excessive twig and branch breakage. In short, they are slightly messy. The tree also has adventitious roots that have been known to clog sewers.

The leaves are easy to distinguish from those of other maple species in that they are deeply lobed, sharp-pointed and long-stalked. The light green upper surface contrasts nicely with the soft silver luster on the bottom sides, a feature that contributed to the tree’s name. Unlike the sugar and red maples that display brilliant orange to red autumn color, the leaves of the silver turn a soft yellow before falling.

A characteristic of the silver maple that I have always enjoyed is the gracefully drooping lower and outer branches that have a decided upward sweep. The gray-brown bark of the trunk flakes away somewhat, giving a shaggy look to the tree.

As is true for most maples, the growth of the silver maple is rapid for the first 25-30 years, reaching full size at 90-110 years. Seldom do they live to be more than 125-140 years. On the other hand, the sugar maple, Wisconsin’s state tree, has been known to reach 250 years of age.

How well I remember the enormous quantity of winged seeds that fell each autumn from our neighbor’s silver maples. One can expect a large crop from this species nearly annually. This species’ seeds are the largest produced by any native maple and they are eagerly eaten by gray foxes, red squirrels and other rodents, along with pine and evening grosbeaks.

I am reminded of a statement made by the English patriot and philosopher, John Evelyn, in his "Sylva, or a discourse of forest trees, and the propogation of timber in His Majesty’s dominion". He said, "Men seldom plant trees till they begin to be wise, that is, till they grow old and find, by experience, the prudence and necessity of it."

Today is the day to develop this lifelong beneficial habit. Become a tree planter!

This column appeared in the Door County Advocate on 04/28/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Roy Lukes. All rights reserved.