Archive for Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Biology behind beauty of Baldwin City maple trees

November 21, 2007

When I was asked last week why the maple trees around Baldwin City are prettier than other maples in the area, I knew the answer but found the phenomenon difficult to explain. Similar species of trees often resemble each other within geographic regions.

Before I go any further, let us talk about tree biology. There are two ways new trees originate: vegetative propagation and seeds.

Most of the trees available for sale today are products of vegetative propagation: cuttings, buddings or tissue culture from one parent.

Every Red Sunset Maple is exactly like the original. "Parent" trees are selected for specific traits like fall color, size, shape and drought tolerance. When you purchase a vegetatively propagated tree, you know exactly what you are getting.

Seed-produced trees, in contrast, come from two parents and display genetic diversity. Think of trees in the same manner as families. Each child will display characteristics of both parents but will not be identical to either.

To make it more complicated, sugar maples produce male and female flowers on the same tree, but each seedling produced is still unique because of the cross between the male and female.

As seeds are produced and new trees grow, it only makes sense that the new seedlings will resemble their parents.

Over decades, one beautiful sugar maple can produce hundreds of children that exhibit the same beautiful color and shape. As the seeds blow in the wind and take root, the area grows larger.

I have been told that the sugar maples around Baldwin City originated from seedlings transplanted from New England. If this is true, we can expect those maples to color in the same brilliance as their parents in the Northeast.

There are other factors that affect fall color in sugar maples. The display of reds and yellows occurs when trees stop producing chlorophyll as a response to decreasing periods of sunlight (shorter days). Temperature and cloud cover influence the brilliance of the color and the length of the fall color season.

Fall color is not the only tree characteristic influenced by provenance. The next time you travel outside city limits, look at the trees growing at the edges of fields and pastures. I often see groves of oaks whose branches appear to be gnarled in the same direction. A former instructor of mine used to speak about what he called "twin trees." A tree growing in the middle of a field will often have a twin within a few hundred yards. The twin tree is most likely a sibling or child of the tree you first observed.

Whether or not the sugar maples in southern Douglas County are more beautiful than the rest of the maples in Kansas is up to the observer, but we cannot deny that the maples are, for the most part, similar to each other. They are their own family.

-- Jennifer Smith is the Douglas County Extension Agent--Horticulture for K-State Research & Extension. She can be reached at 843-7058 or smithjen@ksu.edu.

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