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Tree Love: Bigleaf Maples

Last week I laid out a plan to pontificate on Pacific Northwest trees, a storied appreciation of the most prominent of plants. I offered up experiences with the red alder, those ever-cycling nutrient bombs, the first wave. What comes after? Well, by design or chance I chose the next tree in the standard understanding of forest succession. But that is far from the reason I chose bigleaf maples.

How many times have you stopped to gaze at one individual tree? I’ve lost track of the trees I’ve admired over and over, or I was never counting to begin with. Something felt different about the licorice fern frilled branches of one particular giant on the southern boundary of Discovery Park in Seattle. This tree was the maple of my mind’s eye, the archetypal tree with a spreading crown and cool shade. 

Seventy feet up in the canopy of a bigleaf maple.

Cast your imagination to a hot afternoon. Where have you sought respite to eat your lunch or read a book? We’ve nearly all done this at one point or another, spread out in cool grass beneath a shade tree. If you have spent time along the Pacific coast of North America, you’d probably recognize bigleaf maples. Maybe not as a specific species, but certainly as shelter. They are cool islands of moss, layered canopies of lime green halflight. With all the shade they create, bigleaf maples hold their own against the tide of conifers, firm resistance against newcomers, gripping strong to boulder fields and deep river valleys alike.   

As with red alders, I need only lift my eyes out the window to alight on a bigleaf maple, Acer macrophyllum, quite literally the “maple with large leaves.” Since we moved to Vashon Island, I’ve been peeking at a specific tree that fills one of our windows, anticipating every perceivable change through the long dark gray into the sunshine. My partner through this stay home, stay healthy order knew without a doubt what tree I aimed to tackle next. I’ve spent half of my spring days prancing about their limbs, photographing their changes, bursting with joyful spouts about “bursting buds” and “unfurling racemes,” and “listen, there’s a Black-throated Gray Warbler up there!” She’s tolerant, sometimes even inviting of my jabbering, but I may have found her limit with the endless talk of maples. 

Sometimes when an organism is named, it’s for a discrete feature. This may aid identification if you’re holding it dead in your hand, or examined under a microscope. It took several tries this spring for me to show Caitlin the orange of an Orange-crowned Warbler. An unashamed fellow in the birdbath, his bill spread slack with rapture, finally spread his head feathers and we had a glimpse of the namesake. I don’t blame scientists for this name; there is an orange crown and Greenish-grayish-yellow Warbler lacks a certain style. However, these monikers seem ridiculous when other names are so apt that you never think twice about them. Bigleaf maples are certainly in this category. There is no mistaking their leaf size.


A particularly large leaf.

My housemate Tanner and I were standing above Diobsud Creek, which flowed out of the Noisy-Diobsud Wilderness. Months later we’d learn that the first potential wolf pack West of the Cascade crest in nearly a century was somewhere up this valley. And yet this felt like any old forest, logged over and regrowing, like the ones we’d both grown up with in our respective home states of Washington and Oregon. Here was that shade tree of our youth. Tanner picked up the leaf and brought it to his face, a mask that engulfed his not insubstantial noggin. This childhood fascination continues to be fun, because bigleaf maple leaves still often dwarf an adult human’s face. 

This particularly massive leaf was splashed with lemon blotches. Bigleaf maples are one of the few Pacific Northwest native trees that actually display fall color. Skinny vine and Douglas maples do blaze red, but I have a hard time calling their slender, brushy forms trees. One of the only other gaudy displays come from larches, which were growing not too far from where we stood, on the most weather-beaten rocky ridges of the North Cascades. 

Diobsud Creek eventually feeds into the Skagit, which digs one of the deep river valleys that twist their way out of the Cascade Range. Back where those rivers disappear into tributaries are places of intermingling. Bigleaf maples are known for being a plant of moisture, of soggy-bottomed haunts where they form unbelievably lush “Halls of Moss” in places like the Hoh River Valley on the Olympic Peninsula. Yet they are tolerant. of rocky slopes that conifers can’t handle, and eke out life on dry exposed sites that won’t do for an alder or a cottonwood. This, and their ability to shade out other trees while living a moderately long life, has allowed bigleaf maples to stake claim to a wide range along the West Coast and be considered the “next step” in succession after alders and willows. A few sneaky maples root in shaded nooks as far south as San Diego and others stretch up the central coast of British Columbia. Others creep up and over passes and mingle with ponderosa pine in east slope valleys. They need more water than an oak, and can’t handle heavy snows, but they still show up in surprising places. 

Along with my roommates in graduate school, bigleaf maples were the company that made the drive back and forth to Diablo Lake from Marblemount on Highway 20 bearable. I hold dear to Mary Oliver’s saying “attention is the beginning of devotion,” and certainly found myself more engaged as the drive became part of my sense of home. Gawking at roadside bears and stopping to admire glowing walls of seepspring monkeyflowers all enhanced my appreciation for this corner of my State. And yet, I’m sorry Mary, paying attention was also just an early morning and late night slog through twisty, dangerous roads for a year of graduate school. I suppose a different sort of devotion. 

Bigleaf maples show the seasons on their sleeves. Through fall they are deep yellow, and as their leaves drop their laden trunks glow a bit greener with epiphytes enjoying the tiny space of temperature, precipitation, and sunlight the shoulder seasons offer. Spring brings pendulous hanging racemes, long stems bearing multiple individual flowers, seeming to open exactly when warblers arrive from Sonora or Costa Rica. Their shade proved vital to my focus on sweltering days in the North Cascades. 

A male Audubon’s (Yellow-rumped) Warbler along the Upper Skagit River amid fresh blooms.

Looking back I realize now that these maples have always been a source of comfort. I don’t remember when I first became aware of them as a species, but I think I have always known their shelter was there. In places decidedly not like home, they have reminded me that I can be adaptable. 

Their weeping branches have given me purchase on steep rocky slopes in search of Peregrine Falcon nests above Lake Diablo. I have been reminded of home by their plush, finely haired leaves brushing my face as I scaled an exposed burn to survey woodpeckers in the Northern Sierras. I pulled hard off the road the first time I saw bigleaf maple growing just below Blewett Pass in Central Washington. 

During my first quarter of graduate school, my cohort backpacked into the remote town of Stehekin wedged between the North Cascades and Lake Chelan. Amidst the uncertainty of why I was there, and who these new people were, I found solace in the surprise of bigleaf maples. They lined the road into town, growing between ponderosa pines, a tree I view as emblem of the east slope of the Cascades. We devoured pie and ice cream in their shade outside the famed bakery. Pacific Crest Trail through-hikers joined us, just arriving from their trek from the Mexico border, the other end of the tree’s range.


The first time I climbed a bigleaf maple I could hear my heartbeat in my ears and my legs were wobbly. I’d been up taller trees, like a nearly 200 foot Douglas fir in a friend’s yard. This tree was maybe 70 feet tall. The difference was that this time my rope looped through the top of an impossibly tall, slim, and near branchless trunk, one of dozens on this tree. Though it was no less safe, this was my first experience feeling exposed while climbing a tree, no branches below to veil the height. Nerves don’t do you a lot of good in a tree, and my co-worker and I were climbing for fun, so I tried not to look down and focused on the ascent.  

Looking down.

Many bigleaf maples in developed or previously logged sites have multiple trunks that start near ground level. Unlike most conifers, bigleaf maples (and many other broadleaved trees) can grow back from their stump. For foresters, this is a frustrating ability because a tree once leveled can shoot back many multiple foot long stems in a matter of years. This adaptation allows them to spring back after fires, or other events that might level surrounding conifers for good. There are half a dozen of these multiple trunked maples growing back on the property where I live, the perfect poles for introduced English ivy to train up. Take a look around if you have bigleaf maples growing near you and you’ll likely find these forms, arrow straight, reaching into the future. 

Bigleaf maples are also desirable timber. Their wood can show amazing grain coloration and patterns called figure and their trunks develop large burls. These make beautiful bowls, wood for guitars, and slabs for live-edge tables (Carlos Santana plays guitars made with Pacific Northwest bigleaf maple). Unfortunately this has led to substantial illegal harvests and trade of bigleaf maple timber, which are hacked to pieces and mauled to find the desired figure for a hundred million dollar illegal market. This is such a problem, and one that many of us assume doesn’t happen in “lawful” America, that in 2018 a community science project was developed to inventory bigleaf maple genetics in combating illegal harvests. Once a tree is cut and milled, it’s very difficult to tell its provenance without such methods, and such sleuthing is often beyond the resources of federal law enforcement. 

Those previously stumped trees also remind me of an age old practice called coppicing. Coppicing is the practice of cutting back trees or shrubs to generate desirable growth. The already established root structure of the original tree stump (called a stool when in a coppice) feeds vigorous new growth. In the case of bigleaf maples this can be up to ten feet in the first year of regeneration. 

Vigorous new growth from a previously cut stump.

Initially this might sound just as barbaric as poaching figured wood. There is evidence that coppicing, from the French word couper “to cut,” has been in practice in different parts of the world for thousands of years, since before the written record. Does that make it ok to seemingly butcher a tree? Possibly not. On the flip side, it’s become a way to maintain forests instead of denuding them for short term benefit. Many forest products can come from a copse, a patch of forest managed in rotation through this practice. You might produce biofuels from willow, axe handles from ash, firewood from maples, and basketry from hazel. Coppices are shaped by people indeed but they also offer up opportunities for reciprocity, and to examine how we ourselves have been shaped by the trees as well. It feels as if this relationship goes deeper than mere production.

Bigleaf maples might not be the best choice of trees to coppice at the moment. Within the past ten years many trees in Washington, regardless of age or underlying health have been growing stunted, prematurely yellowed leaves, and entire stems in the crown structure are dying back. Forest pathologists with the USDA and researchers at the University of Washington tackled the issue after concerned landowners across the state started reporting the issue. Despite rigorous work, there was no evidence of a specific disease or infestation. Instead something more insidious seemed to be the culprit, urbanization, a warming climate, a changing water table. We may be in the midst of a sea change for the makeup of our forests; a lot of trees don’t seem to be recovering from the combined stresses of longer, drier summers.

Maple leaves drape the forest floor in a park in Seattle.

Despite all this, bigleaf maples still seem to represent fertility and prosperity. Most sources note that seed production is prolific, which I have seen first hand in lawns, garden beds, and rain gutters all across Western Washington. Their seeds are large and tasty to many animals, their seedlings are fodder for deer and elk; one in a thousand may survive, so make many. Those magnificent leaves make wonderful mulch and offer opportunity for a riotous romp through a fall leaf pile.

Epiphytes can grow so thick in particularly verdant places that soil builds up under the mossy matts bigleaf maples support. The weight of these mosses, lungworts, and lichens has been estimated at up to a ton on certain trees. To share in those soil nutrients, bigleaf maples grow aerial roots into this layer. This was first described by a then graduate student, Dr. Nalini Nadkarni who ascended into the canopy to investigate life there. 

Mats of moss on a bigleaf maple along the Hoh River in Olympic National Park.

I graduated from The Evergreen State College, where Dr. Nadkarni was a professor at the time. It is with an exacting hindsight that I look back and wish I’d known the magic of being up trees, of climbing another being to observe an entirely different ecosystem up in the air. I wish I had been able to connect with her as a budding scientist and student. However, as I sat in my home, mulling over ways to find connections in the world of social distancing, I knew that Dr. Nadkarni or not, I could still occupy the space I was seeking out. I just had to climb.

As a climbing arborist, you are always on the lookout for deadwood. Deadwood to remove. Deadwood to avoid standing on, tying into, or knocking loose on your unsuspecting coworkers below. Bigleaf maples are very good at compartmentalizing, shunting dead or dying limbs, which can sit precariously for ages, housing families of birds and generations of microorganisms in the process. I found myself dealing with these hazards, letting several branches fly as I accidentally bumped them, hard to pick out amidst even the modest moss in the tree I was huffing up. I was feeling especially delicate because unlike when I ascended with a saw to prune, this time I had my camera and binoculars with me. 

Looking up into the maple in my yard.

The main reason I am energetic about bigleaf maples are their blooms. I wanted to sit in the crown of flowers and watch the life drawn in by the flabbergasting number of flowers each tree grows. Unfortunately their flowers, which are so obvious from the outside are hard to see from the interior of the canopy, even with still unfolding leaves. Getting out to the tip of a branch is physically impossible for an adult human despite some fancy ropework. I knew this before getting up in the tree I was climbing of course. I merely needed an excuse to get some different exercise and perspective, working my way up the vertically grooved bark. 

Out of reach, I could see insects visiting the blooms in the top of the canopy.

I first became entranced by maple blooms when I was living on a friend’s property in the San Juan Islands. Strangely I’d come down with mononucleosis at age 29 and was barred from much activity by a severe lack of energy. Short walks on sunny vernal days had to suffice for activity, and brought me in close contact with a particular tree that jutted out along a particularly sunbaked treeline. As the sun persisted and the buds finally burst into yellowy-green, many flowered stems, it was all over. I was obsessed by the tens of thousands of flowers and the life they drew.

Viewing that great bud burst drew me to pondering insects more than any other event in my life. I have not encountered such an event since. This was likely due to my chancing on the right temperatures and the right place (or it might be because there has been a severe decline in flying insects worldwide). Regardless, the event holds strong in my memory. Today I suspect I am too near polluting centers, like the Tacoma Smelter Plume, and a legacy of pesticide use, to experience the flies, beetles, bees, butterflies, and moths that covered the flowers of that tree in the San Juans. 

As perched on a tall ladder to photograph these insects, it slowly dawn on me that I knew none of them beyond family. Rousing myself out at night to shine a flashlight on blooms revealed nocturnal visitors I knew were moths, but that was as far as it got. Where had all these insects come from? How did they know when to arrive? It’s always best to have more questions than answers and I’m still working out all the bee flies, flower flies, dance flies and gnats. I know I missed tiny beetles amid the riot of movement. This was my first real introduction to bees that were other than bumble, honey, and mason, finding that there are around 400 bee species in Washington that are mostly solitary, both tiny and large. Here was a whole world I had basically ignored.   

Bigleaf maples are gender-fluid plants. They are heterodichogamous, a technical mouthful that means they bear both female and male structures at different times. Depending on the place, a population may have female or male flowers first and then follow up with the second. Before I sat down to write this piece, I did not know what this term meant, nor to look for those different structures as I engaged in photographing maples this spring. I wish I had, because it would have added layers to my time with that tree I climbed and admired out the window. When I plucked entire strings of flowers to fry as tasty fritters, I did so with the measures of an honorable harvest that I learned from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, but not knowing more about those clusters feels like a misstep. Typical white guy, showing up, taking, not listening.  

An image I took of blooms during graduate school using a portable light studio.

In that very pandemic of phrases: I was in a zoom call this week. However, this time it was to listen to dialogue between distinguished author, scientist, and proponent of her Indigenous Potowatami traditional ecological knowledge, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and author, teacher, and mystic Robert Macfarlane about the book I mentioned above. Logging in, I stewed in what had become a familiar anticipation of disengagement, borne from repeated meetings via video calls. Thankfully I found myself captivated by the conversations between two people I can only hope to emulate in my life. Somehow they ended up discussing the very things I think of when I consider bigleaf maples: strength and regeneration through adversity, the cyclical view of time, different ways of knowing, and even, by chance a brief discussion of how to provide a new pronoun for nature. 

For bigleaf maples are emblems of strength, growing back despite a fire or saw, holding up the weight of water soaked aerial ecosystems, rooted strongly against taller and older conifers. They are spirals of time with rounded crowns, surging up and down with the events of their lives, hairy samaras whirling to flow up in an echo of their parents. When we receive shade, comfort, and joy from their annual journey through the seasonal round, how can we not seek out reciprocity for them when we all are struggling as well? 

Bigleaf maples have offered up an opportunity to recognize what Kimmerer described as the “biological vulnerability” that we are feeling right now, and for expansion into ecological compassion for the other beings around us. Her notion of shortening an Anishinaabe word for all living beings on this planet, Bemaadiziiaaki to “Ki” as a pronoun for any singular being in nature, and a plural of “kin,” is nothing short of beautiful. Using it would be a radical act, forcing us to come face to face with the responsibility we hold as humans living alongside kin, instead of looking at a tree as a thing to hack up for profit.

The tree holding me up as I climbed it, like a child climbing a parent’s trunk, with the patience and tolerance many trees must embody to live hundreds of years deserves more than an “it.” Considering this, I will continue to grow in the shade of the thousands of bigleaf maples in my life. Here in this swaying circle, I have no choice but kinship.

6 Comments

  1. Kath Taylor

    Dear Brendan. Beautiful writing and such images to transport us from this pandemic we are all experiencing. My environment and tree cover is different in this Southern Hemisphere but so beautiful in its own way. Thank you. Stay well. Cait

    • Brendan McGarry

      Thank you for the kind words. I’m continually encouraged by the fact that you enjoy my work, even when it’s far off in a distant and ecologically different place. I hope you are well!

  2. Saul Weisberg

    Fabulous! One of my favorite trees. I’ve been photographing the developing buds and flowers at Lake Padden for years.

  3. Merlin

    I’ve spent all morning reading, these articles are great. Thanks

    • Brendan McGarry

      Thanks Merlin, it’s a big compliment that you spent the morning doing so. More will be up in the coming weeks! Cheers and hope you are well!

  4. Pingback: Tree Love: (Sub)Alpine Larches | Wingtrip

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