Gentle, domesticated plants are singing springtime songs, lifting gardens with flowers and newly emerged leaves, but the forest is wintry, especially in the uplands. Mountain slopes may glow with ephemeral wildflowers and buckeye saplings, but the rolling tabletop of the Cumberland Plateau seems little changed from January.
Red maple trees are the exception. Oaks and hickories have their buds clamped shut, but red maple blooms are out. From a distance these trees seem to stand in a shroud of carmine smoke. Each tiny bloom is wine-red, standing like a small flame at the tip of a long, twiggy taper. Many of these flames have already matured and fallen, so my feet to move, for a few moments, through a dust of fallen embers as I pass below the trees.
Not to belabor a point, but these trees have rather variable sexual systems. Red maple flowers are usually either male or female, although a few blooms are both. Individual trees carry all male, all female, or mixed collections of flowers. On mixed trees, single branches will usually grow just male or female flowers. Richard Primack studied a small population of these trees and has written an interesting discussion of how the red maple breeding system fits within the diversity found within the whole Acer genus.
Female red maple flower
Male red maple flower
Male red maple flower
Click on images for captions and a slideshow.
The flowers scattered across our trails are almost all males. Once they have shed their air-borne pollen, their work is over and they become food for worms. (Brave Percy undoubtedly walked among them during his sojourn in Sewanee; the photos above are from a trail close to his haunt at Brinkwood.) The female flowers intercept floating pollen and will, over the coming months, grow the maple’s distinctive samaras or “helicopter fruits.”
Along with these emerging flowers come insects, scraping and sucking and chewing the newly emerged vegetation. And along with the insects: birds. Black-throated green warblers, just back from Central America, are congregating in the maples. I counted three of the warblers in one tree; all were steadily working from one flower to the next, pausing to hurl a short song to the forest, then getting back to work, beak to bloom.