When Camp Salmen shifts from drab winter to vibrant spring, the first flash of color is from the red seeds of the Swamp Maple (Acer rubrum var. drummondii,also called the Drummond or Red Maple). This is just not a Louisiana thing, the U. S. Forest Service declares this is North America’s most common deciduous tree and grows everywhere east of the Mississippi. It’s a highly adaptable species that can inhabit a wide range of conditions, from high on mountainsides to down in the swamps. Unfortunately for Louisiana, many of our swamps are dying. Levees built along the Mississippi River have cut off the annual overflows that nourished these wetlands and provided fresh silt. As a result, soils are getting soupy and Swamp Maples are falling over left and right.
Elsewhere on the continent, the tree has become something of an “internal invader.” It is thought these trees were in smaller proportions to other trees when Europeans got to America and are steadily taking over forests at the expense of oaks and pines. Amazingly, they finish their growing season in the same spectacular fashion as they began, by turning their fall leaves to the same crimson color as the seeds.
The tree shows different personalities to the different animals that use them for food. White-tailed deer and certain kinds of butterfly producing caterpillars love to eat the tree’s leaves, however, these leaves can kill a horse. First they get depressed (horses get depressed?) and then lethargic and eventually fall into a coma and die. Watch out, horse lovers! On a lighter note, if you time the tree’s season just right, you can poke a hole in the bark and get a sap that makes one of my favorites – maple syrup.
More on the unusual seeds - They have a graceful, curving wing to one side, sort of like a rigid insect’s wing. They’re angled in such a way that they spin when they fall, like a whirligig or helicopter. This helps them remain aloft so the winds can take them further from the tree. Full sized maples can produce a million seeds. If you’re lucky to be in the right place at the right time you’ll see a gust of wind knock hundreds of these seeds loose from a high branch and they fall in a beautiful, sunlit shower of spinning seeds. They are also a favorite of children who delight in exploring this phenomenon by picking up and flying the little helicopters over and over again.