3 Acer (Maple Genus)

Separation and Hanging On

Susan Jane and I approach the red maple (Acer rubra). Two red maples, actually, are companionably growing about 20 feet apart from one another adjacent to a small shrubbery on one side and a quiet street running along the other. I’ve selected the tree closest to the street for tagging. A bit off the beaten track, but in my opinion that makes it all the more fun for tree trekkers to find. To Susan Jane, I explain that my basic reasoning for this choice is, in a word, location. Though not growing right next to each other like the tagged spruces, two other maple species on the tour grow in this general area, sugar maple (Acer saccharum) and Amur maple (Acer ginnala), provide similar contrast and comparison opportunities in this big park.

Maples are one of the few trees in the plant world that present their buds (and therefore their leaves) as growing opposite one another on the branch, sort of like climbing up a ladder. Most trees and shrubs have buds coming out of their twigs in an alternate pattern, growing in a staggered way up the branch. Branching pattern is one useful way to ID a maple in the wintertime when there are no leaves to help out. After determining whether alternate or opposite, a winter tree trekker can then move on to observe the dormant buds and also the leaf scars. For, when a leaf separates from the twig in autumn, there remains at the zone where it detached a permanent mark unique to its species. Called a leaf scar, the tiny dots within it correspond to the ends of the leaf’s vascular tissue, or veins, that previously carried nutrients from the twig into the leaf. Called bundle scars, the arrangements they make along with the shape of the leaf scar open up the imagination to find smiles, faces, or shapes — again, unique to their species.

This being early autumn, however, Susan Jane and I still have plenty of leaves hanging around to entertain us.

“The sugar maples turn color first,” she remarks. It’s true. We have just come from the sugar maple grove, and one or two of those trees are gloriously shining red against the blue sky of this lovely day and the freshly mown grass beneath. The leaves of our Acer rubra, in contrast, are still fluttering green above us in the breeze. I tap in the new red maple sign, and we pause a moment to look back and enjoy the vista view of sugar maples.

Beauty surrounds us in every direction, green tones mingling their leafy notes with the first tints of fall color, or as in the current display of the sugar maples, blazingly scarlet with intention. Every tree has their season, and maples have some particularly striking ones. In fall, leaves change color as the days become shorter and temperatures cooler. At that point, the leaves stop their photosynthesis and start sending their remaining nutrients down into the roots for storage through the winter. The green color fades away, and what is left to dazzle are the other color components that were always present in the leaves. The magnificent displays of reds, yellows and oranges easily draw most people to view them in the fall, but spring is also a time when maples demand a certain type of attention. In Minnesota, especially in my area, sugar maples abound. When temperatures drop below freezing at night and rise into the 40s during the day in a freeze-thaw pattern, these are the best conditions for the sap to start running, the season usually beginning in March and lasting well into April. That’s the time to get out buckets and spouts for sap collecting.

All Acers have a sweet sap — red maples, silver maples, box elders; it’s just that sugar maples have the highest concentration of sugar, so it takes less sap for boiling down into syrup or even further to make maple sugar. It takes lots of sap from any tree to produce syrup. Interestingly, a University of Vermont study shows that an individual maple tree’s sugar content varies not only season to season, but also fluctuates within the same year. Tricky! Timing is everything. Spring weather patterns determine the timing for collecting sap during the crucial 4 to 6 weeks of maple season.

Weather was a key element of my dad’s daily life. As an adult, he began to follow the weather news avidly out of necessity because his passion in life was outdoor recreational activities, especially biking and skiing, which are very weather dependent. In time, he habitually enjoyed watching it both on the news and what was happening weather-wise outside. My husband’s day, also, has always revolved around weather and the weather newscast. The difference between his approach and my dad’s boils down to on the one hand, a forecast giving more of a short term look vs. a fuller understanding of how and why all the bits and pieces fall into place to create a bigger picture. My husband studied weather in college, learned the science behind it, and integrates that knowledge into his daily observations of patterns and systems. Weather itself, in other words, is one of his passions. For these reasons, among the three of us, we began to refer to my husband as the Senior Weatherman and my dad as the Junior Weatherman, which gave us a lot of fun.

In late fall of 2019, our family found ourselves suddenly thrust into fulltime caregiving at home for my dad, working together to help. Once it became clear that he was very ill, I only left his side once to come home for a short three day stint. The rest of the time, I put my life on hold to be with him.

“I’m not leaving,” I said when he questioned my canceling of art shows. There was that tone in my voice that I meant what I said. “I’m only going home for a few days, and then I’m coming right back and I’m not leaving.”

“OK,” he said meekly.

During those few days that I went home, I used a photo I’d recently taken of some red maples on the boulevard in front of their house to write a nature blog post. As usual, I emailed it to him that same day. My sister was with my dad at the time, and I asked her to read him the post in case he was too weak to check email. She did so. Of course, I couldn’t know it would turn out to be the last writing of mine that he would ever see.

Upon my return, he and I sat on the futon upstairs in the TV room where he was parked most days now and we talked. He’d enjoyed the latest post, and it got him thinking. He told me about abscission, the botany term for the biological process of how a leaf’s petiole (or stem) lets go of its twig so that the leaf falls to the ground in autumn. This, of course, is how leaf scars are formed. Subsequent to this conversation, I edited the post to include this important concept, impressed with how science has a name for everything! Going beyond the cessation of photosynthesis which makes leaves change color, abscission, he said, is a kind of complicated process with chemicals and hormones that cause the senescent leaf’s stem to thin and release.

“What’s a senescent leaf?” I asked.

“Well, it doesn’t have to be a leaf. Abscission can happen to any unneeded organ or part. Senescent just means old or used up, ready to go.”


I did not voice the thought that he himself was like a senescent leaf, mostly because it was not a conscious, concrete thought. It half formed in my mind, though, and hung in the room changing colors conspicuously to get my attention, but I did not want to take notice.

All this dying stuff was something I had no experience with. My dad did, though. He had worked in a hospice program for decades as a volunteer. He didn’t voice this thought either, but I think he knew what was happening more than we all did. He was preparing himself. He quietly sat there on the futon couch, resignedly going through it, eventually taking to his bed the way animals retreat when their time is near, in his case bundling up underneath the fluffy down comforter. But he was not all calm and practical. No, he was alternately depressed, hopeless, frightened, demanding and needy – in other words, human. The family didn’t know all the physical signs, all the changing conditions that would tell us exactly which way the weather was blowing. Nothing could give us an exact explanation or timing of my dad’s own abscission. None of us could know that in only two weeks hence, he would have completed the process.

Here is the last post that so engaged my dad and I, and which gave me the opportunity to learn about abscission. The weather theme is intentional, for I thought it would particularly appeal to the Junior Weatherman. I wrote it, returned to his side to care for him, and watched as he went through the process of slowly letting go.



October 27, 2019 | Morning Walk Report, Trees


A hard frost last night loosened the tenuous connection of maple leaf petiole to twig that has held the leaves fast all summer.  In botany, this process of letting go is called abscission. Springtime through now, green leaves fluttered with no separation through storm and languid days alike, sheltering birds from view and shading legged creatures passing beneath (such as myself). I look up at the marvelously colored red leaves still holding fast to their twigs against the backdrop of blue morning sky. One particular tree on the boulevard, however, is so frost affected from last night’s temperature plunge that it is performing a strange phenomenon for a maple. Each leaf on this tree is all at once helpless to continue hanging on to its twig, instead of falling a little at a time.

I pause to sit for a while beneath this tree on its carpet of frozen leaves — reds, yellows, oranges with their lighter undersides intermingled. I listen to (and sometimes feel) the pat of each solid frozen leaf as it drops one-by-one in a continuous, slow freefall, each leaf randomly taking turns. Unlike the usual soft-drop-flutter-down, this is a solid little “pat” as each leaf lands. The way they sort of bounce off me in this way makes me laugh, so noticeably hefty and solidly present are each one. The leafy carpet on which I’m kneeling feels chilly and the warmth of my skin melts through my pants making itself known to the frosty leaves, and vice versa. By the end of the morning, all the leaves on this particular tree will have dropped.

Today, two days later, and back up two hours north again, oak trees are the sole retainers of leaves – beautiful russets, and browns and autumn chestnut colors – while all the maples and other species have laid bare. Oak trees are one of a few deciduous trees that retain their leaves well into winter, called marcescence in botany. The base of the stem retains just enough life to keep the dried up leaf attached until the abscission process completes in the spring. Most tree branches, however, now reach denuded arms to the sky. They remind me of the long winter months ahead in which they will continue to look this way.

However, not so!

In reality all trees will respond to the weather and will be dressed in an endless array of variants of frosty pearls and whites, rainbow crystal colors refracting through ice and snow. Weather does not stop, thank goodness. It keeps on coming with with things — some of them very decorative – that remind us of the ever-changing conditions that all living and nonliving things share. As our local weatherman points out, this autumn we will have rain and more rain until the rain turns into snow. This autumn, in particular, has been overall very wet.

Lately, a favorite phrase I’ve been using in conversation to describe various situations is, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” (after the epic Spaghetti western film) which seems to sum up many things for me right now. Life presents combinations of the good, the bad and the ugly, usually all in the same day. Ruinous situations may surround you. Your particular condition in the plethora of constantly swirling human emotions may leave you feeling, for example, trapped and lonely, lost and helpless. Like a video game where you find yourself in the midst of virtual buildings falling down around you. Floods overwhelm the shore. Storm winds threaten to blow you over until you find the center, your center, the eye of calm in the hurricane. You find that everything actually does not focus upon you. Frozen leaves continue to drop quietly down in succession with a gentle pitter pat in the silence, regardless of whether or not you happen to be in the way. This neutral contact gives you the opportunity to become aware of and notice that particular moment just as the inner calm of your core is always, unflaggingly, urging you to do.

As I write, I recall sitting on those frozen leaves and of that moment when I suddenly felt connected intimately with the trees. Breathing in a circle through their trunks and back into my own lungs and out again, I felt a stark camaraderie of legs and hands, branches and leaves, head and crown reaching to the sky. Useless thoughts separated and fluttered away, until suddenly the trees appeared in a different perspective, part of me. Their beauty reaches out for me now, fills my heart with hope and song, and I can almost see the buds that will arise next spring, tender and alive – as am I.

All the weather conditions that arise, that keep the variables changing, moving and repeating through the seasons provide the natural backdrop revolving through our lives. Weather takes away any illusion of division between me and everything else. No one escapes its effects. Prepared, you will act accordingly, with the extra bonus being that if you keep your eyes open, you will naturally (along with everything else) remain vigilantly awake and on your toes for whatever comes next.


Tree Trek Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Mirocha Ellison. All Rights Reserved.

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