What's a maple flower?

It’s spring time. Through the windows, we are lucky to see spectacular blossoms on cherry and plum trees, red-flowering currant shrubs, and trillium.

What about the Pacific NW’s ubiquitous bigleaf maple trees (Acer macrophyllum)? They are “flowering plants,” right? What do the flowers look like?

Bigleaf maple flowers

Bigleaf maple flowers

Right now, bigleaf maples are in full flower. Bunches of flowers hang straight down. Each tree bears thousands of flowers, which provide almost all of the tree’s green color at this time of year.

These flowers emerge just before the leaves.

Bigleaf maple leaves emerging

Bigleaf maple leaves emerging

In the Pacific NW, bigleaf maple is not the most abundant broadleaf tree. Red alder (Alnus rubra) probably takes that honor.

But bigleaf maple is the broadleaf tree that is most interspersed with the Pacific NW’s evergreen forests. This tree—largest in the maple family—appears here and there throughout hemlock or Douglas-fir forests west of the Cascades. It can grow in pure stands, especially in moist areas.

How can you recognize a bigleaf maple before its huge leaves come out?

Bigleaf maple trunk

Bigleaf maple trunk

You may have once learned that moss grows only on the north sides of trees—supposedly a trick for not getting lost. Don’t be fooled by this. Here in the rainy Pacific NW, moss can grow on all sides of trees. But certain trees are more hospitable to moss than others.

In the photo above, the bigleaf maple trunk is covered with mosses and lichens. Most bigleaf maples look like this. This is the easiest way to recognize the tree before the leaves come out.

Bark of bigleaf maples is a perfect host for mosses, lichens, licorice ferns, and other epiphytes. These trees support by far the greatest moss load of any tree in the Pacific NW.

In contrast, notice that the two Douglas-firs in the background on either side of the bigleaf maple are comparatively moss-free.

Take a look in the woods near you. You are likely to find bigleaf maples, which you can recognize by their moss-covered trunks. Bigleaf maples should be in full flower right now.

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