The Sugar Maple One Year Later


About a year ago I wrote “Long Live the Sugar Maple,” about our imperiled tree. This is an update.

First, a bit of background: it must have been about twenty years ago that we had the sugar maple planted out front. I’ve always loved the sugar maple’s shape and iconic fall colors and the sweetness of its syrup.  It’s the official tree of New York State.

I’ve planted plenty of trees by myself over the years—get a sapling from the nursery or the Arbor Day Foundation, dig a hole, relax the roots, fill in with soil and compost, water, wait, and watch. The tree-growing business is a long game.

But this sugar maple we had professionally planted. It was a bigger specimen to start, about ten feet (it’s probably four times that height now). The team from the nursery used their fancy hole digger, lowered the tree into its space, and secured it with stakes. We watched the operation with the kids at our side.

The tree grew quickly over the years and has been a favorite of mine. It was robust and beautiful. I even tapped it a couple of seasons ago and boiled the sap I collected into syrup.

Then over the last five years or so something started changing. The sugar maple started turning color early, as early as mid-August. I wasn’t concerned—I simply believed it was a preview of autumn. Then there appeared a thinning of the leaves near the top branches. I thought maybe it was growing too quickly and the canopy couldn’t keep up, although I had no evidence that such a thing was even possible.

It was last summer when Owen uncovered the problem. He’d been looking at the tree and not liking what he saw. He excavated around the base and discovered a serious issue: girdling roots. It’s just like the name says: a root that wraps around the true just below the surface and constricts the growth of other roots. Our sugar maple was slowly choking to death.

The primary cause of root girdling is improper planting. And to think we’d gone the professional planting route with this one.

Owen cut out the largest of the girdling roots. He fertilized and sprayed the tree. Eternal optimist that I am, I believed the sugar maple would recover this season. That hasn’t happened. The leaves are turning and falling even earlier this year. It might be on its way out. It probably is. Another five years maybe.

Why am I so saddened by a faltering tree? Maybe because it’s one we planted when our kids were young and for so many years the tree thrived and grew and somehow represented our family and the mark we made here and the tree would continue to live on in splendor after we are gone.

That might not happen now. But we’re prepared. We’ve got several other saplings on the property that could take the sugar maple’s place—our Japanese katsura or the dawn redwood might fit nicely in that space. Maybe another birch or quaking aspen.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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