Watching for signs of spring in the Lowcountry? Look for bright red patches in the landscape, along roadsides and in woods and swamps.
Those splashes of color are red maple trees (Acer rubrum), whose swelling, scarlet buds and reddish flowers are among the first signs that winter is starting to recede.
The tiny flowers, borne in hanging clusters, appear even before the tree comes into leaf.
Some red maple trees produce just male blossoms (look for the long, pollen-bearing stamens); others bear only female flowers, which give rise to seeds and fruits. Still other trees have both kinds of flowers, on different branches.
The red, flattened fruits (keys, or samaras) are borne in pairs and continue to ripen while the leaves begin to emerge. Each samara has a long, papery “wing” and contains a single wind-dispersed seed.
Many samaras are stored and eaten later by squirrels.
When my sister and I were children, we called maple fruits “polynoses,” and amused each other by separating the two halves and pasting the sticky ends onto the bridge of our noses. We also tossed them into the air, watching them twirl and spin as they fluttered to the ground.
Even the foliage of red maple is colorful in the spring. The first leaves are crimson as they unfurl, gradually turning green as they enlarge.
This early red color comes from pigments called anthocyanins, which may protect developing leaves from high light intensities while their photosynthetic capacity matures.
Red maple is native to North America and occurs throughout most of the eastern and central United States – in fact, it’s one of our most abundant deciduous trees.
Native Americans used red maple bark medicinally, to relieve pain and inflammation.
Early settlers used it to make ink and dyes. The tree’s sap can be boiled down into syrup, though sugar maple, a close relative, is generally preferred.
Commercially, red maple wood is put to various uses, from furniture and flooring to boxes, bowls, and clothes pins. The species is valued by homeowners and landscapers because of its rapid growth and attractiveness.
In the fall, red maple leaves lose their summer green and drop from the tree. But first they turn scarlet again, as well as yellow and orange, providing another burst of color to the Lowcountry before the next winter settles in.
Vicky McMillan, a retired biologist formerly at Colgate University,lives on Hilton Head Island. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.