Red maple reminds me of the famous comedian Rodney Dangerfield. His big break came on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1960, when he started a routine about getting no respect and continued this line for around a half-century. This maple species gets no respect either, so otherwise astute outdoors wanderers may overlook this tree’s importance.

For starters, besides being an OK wood to burn, particularly in spring and early fall when we don’t need blistering heat, red maple also feeds several critters in the Northeast, one of its claims to fame.

Deer, varying hare and moose forage on red maple saplings, evidenced in clear-cuts. Myriad shoots grow off stumps, where these foraging critters bite off the buds, leaving cut ends, one of nature’s ways of pruning. Newly trimmed browse has whitish ends, but older feeding activity leaves light-gray to slate-gray tips, depending the weathering time frame.

This is strictly my opinion, but deer forage more on red maple shoot buds in spring and early summer than in other seasons, easy to notice by looking at the different colored shoot ends. In fall, far more shades of gray than white catch my eye, but the rule varies in scarce acorn years.

Deer bite buds off, leaving a perpendicular cut that has short, straggly fibers, often barely visible but rough to a finger’s touch.

A moose bite often leaves an untidy, slightly stringy end with lots of fibers, particularly on striped maple that may measure about the size of a little finger or more in diameter.


During deer season in 1992, I walked into the woods in the pitch blackness before dawn and poked a moose-bitten sapling end into my pupil. Myriad fibers on the “stick” had dried over the summer, so it was like ramming the very end of a dozen of more needles into the eye all at the same time, causing a severe injury. It took several months to heal completely.

Hare have opposing incisors and make a much cleaner cut — but at a 45-degree angle. Sometimes, shoot ends stand so far off the ground that a casual observer might think a deer did it, but hares were feeding while standing on snow, particularly in spring when they turn to maple shoots.

Several songbirds, ruffed grouse, rodents and just about any herbivore or omnivore that wanders the forest (squirrels, raccoon, even bear, etc.) dine on different parts of red maple.

Songbirds in particularly eat red maple seeds and flowers. The blossoms grow in clusters before the leaf buds open, and even someone half-paying attention notices the bright-scarlet female flowers on bare trees and less obvious yellowish-red male blossoms.

Bernd Heinrich’s books “The Trees in My Forest” (Cliff Street Books 1997) and “A Year in the Maine Woods” (Addison-Wesley 1994) contain page after page of factual nature tidbits that keep amateur naturalists interested and occasionally in awe. Some of his observations about red maple can almost keep me awake at night.

This man possesses an incredibly fastidious mind for observing and cataloging details, many that intrigue outdoors types who wander forests while hiking, hunting, fishing, biking or any sport that requires rambling.


The chapters that touch upon fall foliage prove particularly entertaining, particularly this time of year when leaves are turning. One passage in this section describes the array of leaf colors of each red maple in the clearing around his second home in Maine, where he counted 128 red maples — 33 a shade of purple, 21 pink, 52 red to orange and 22 clear yellow.

I’ve often wondered about why red maples change to so many different colors, which reminds me of a quick anecdote. On the Shawmut stretch of the Kennebec River just below the dam, a path on the east side goes from the River Road to the river and ends near two huge red maples, standing in what appears to me to be the exact same soil and light source. One tree there turns bright yellow and the other fiery red every year.

Which begs the question. Why?

Even if we know that carotenoids in the leaves produce yellow, brown and orange as well as blends of the three colors, that anthocyanins create red, purple and amalgamators of the two, and that combinations of carotenoids and anthocyanins give us deeper orange, fiery red and bronzes, it still doesn’t answer the “why” of red and yellow next to one another.

One last tidbit here:

In most temperate regions, 10 percent of the deciduous trees contains anthocyanins, but in New England, in a region in China and in parts of Europe, 70 percent has anthocyanins, explaining our stunningly colorful foliage each fall.

In many places — say the American West — we just see yellows — boring.

Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.