While most deciduous trees are bare and seem lifeless, red maple (Acer rubrum) illuminates the gray January landscape. Glimmering hazy red to yellow-orange flowers appear to float amid the bare and twiggy branches. Upon closer inspection, their flowers are truly exquisite and a remarkable sight to behold.
Red maple trees are dioecious, meaning male or female flowers occur on separate trees. Still, it is not uncommon for both male and female flowers to appear on the same tree, known as polygamodioecious.
The male flowers appear a light yellow-orange due to their long, protruding stamens, loaded with pollen and encouraging pollinators to visit for a snack. In comparison, female flowers are darker, a subdued red hue with sticky, fuzzy stigmas extending past the petals prepared to catch pollen floating by. While maple tree flowers are primarily wind-pollinated, pollinators buzzing around in January, when not much else is flowering, gladly take advantage of this rare treat.
As the flowers fade, fruit, often showier than the flowers, appear. The fruit, botanically classified as a schizocarp, is split into two-winged structures called samaras. The samaras dangle on the ends of branches by thin pedicels (stalks). They remain on the tree for about a month after the spring foliage emerges until the wind eventually disperses them. When masses of fruit clusters are present, it appears as though trees are still in bloom due to their bright, showy red color. On clear winter days, a hazy red vignette of the tree’s canopy against a blue sky backdrop is quite striking to behold.
For more information on maple trees, see HGIC 1016, Maple.