The Winter Wildflower Of The Red Maple

The Winter Wildflower of the Red Maple

When we think of maple trees, we typically think of autumn. That’s when maples shine, adding their brilliant reds and golds to the riot of fall color in the Southern Appalachians each October. Little do most of us know that for a maple, the annual cycle begins in late winter or very early spring—and few of us are aware of its bloom. In the case of the red maple, also known as swamp maple or soft maple, the flowers are purple-red.

Here in the Smokies we had a warm February, and maples are blooming now in full force. Their tiny, delicate blossoms tip the ends of branch twigs and are almost impossible to see unless you can get very close. From a distance, a maple tree in bloom may seem to be surrounded by an ethereal haze of dark mauve, easily missed if you’re not looking for it.

These flowers become more evident months later when they’ve grown larger and developed the “helicopter” maple seeds that fall and litter the ground in hardwood forests. The seeds of red maples are red like the flowers, but other maple species produce different colors; we see them in green and brown as well.

At this time of year the flowers of maples provide important sustenance to honeybees who venture out of the hive on warm days. Using binoculars, we can see bees pollinating the tiny maple flowers high in the trees next to our office. They then return to the hive bearing pollen on their hairy legs. The photo at right shows them at the hive entrance. It’s not easy to get a good image at this time of year, but at bottom center the abdomen of an entering worker bee is visible, and just below it on her hind leg, a yellow dot that’s what is known as the pollen basket. The workers then turn the pollen into “bee bread” to consume through the rest of the winter, and to feed, later on, to developing larvae.