Westmount trees and their stories /8

It must be said that the colours of the maple trees in Westmount Park are quite spectacular in the fall

By Michael Walsh

October 3, 2020

In October, a maple tree before your window lights up your room like a great lamp. Even on cloudy days, its presence helps to dispel the gloom.

John Burroughs

Érables / Maple trees - WestmountMag.ca

Red Maple leaves

Most people describe this season as a period when leaves turn into different colours. In fact, what is occurring is quite interesting: as daylight decreases, there is a gradual shut down of the trees’ photosynthetic mechanism. (Converting light, carbon dioxide and water into various sugars).

The molecule responsible for this is chlorophyll – and when active, displays a bright green colour. It’s this green colour that masks other colours such as orange (carotenoids) and yellows (xanthophyll) already present in the leaf. With decreasing amounts of chlorophyll, the familiar colours of autumn become visible.

Let’s take an October afternoon walk together and discover the stories behind Westmount park’s maple trees.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum)

I have noticed that one of the most photographed trees is a large maple at the park’s de Maisonneuve entrance. It towers over the surrounding trees and contains a huge crown that spans both the walkway and adjacent bicycle path. Its base, damaged on one side, contains a story: several years ago, an automobile driver assumed the park’s bicycle path was a continuation of Boulevard de Maisonneuve – luckily nobody was injured.

Érables / Maple trees - WestmountMag.ca

Silver maple

This particular tree is a Silver maple (Acer saccharinum). Also known as: soft maple, river maple, swamp maple, water maple and white maple. It is a common species that grows near streams and along the sides of lakes. It is a very fast growing tree and can have a lifespan exceeding 100 years.

The species is easy to recognize with its five lobes that have been described as a “splayed hand” with an underside that is silvery green. In autumn, the leaves display a yellow colour – unlike the spectacular red tones of other maples.

The species is native to New Brunswick, portions of Maine, southern Quebec, Ontario and has a range that stretches to the northern portions of Florida. Big, fast growing, and shady, the silver maple is widespread in eastern states and the Midwest.

‘Let’s take an October afternoon walk together and discover the stories behind Westmount park’s maple trees.’

It was a popular street tree in the mid-1900s and today many cities and towns still have large numbers growing on residential lawns and along roadways.

Érables / Maple trees - WestmountMag.ca

Silver Maple leaves

Its fast growth, however, creates a wood that is very brittle and susceptible to breakage during storms. In addition, the Silver maple has a dense and very shallow root system that can causes sidewalks to buckle and cause damage to underground pipes.

In fact, many communities caution against planting this species near residential areas. For those reasons, this species is rarely planted today. As such, it appears that this species should be left in their native habitats and not transplanted into an urban environment.

Red Maple (Acer rubrum)

Another tree by the park’s lagoon puts on a bright red display this time of year. It is a red maple (Acer rubrum). Also known as the Carolina red maple, scarlet maple, soft maple, swamp maple and water maple. Its habitat ranges from the Maritimes, southern Quebec, Ontario and the eastern United States.

Maple trees - WestmountMag.caAlthough beautiful to look at – these scarlet leaves contain a sinister component. Specifically, at the end of the growing season, they contain high levels of gallic acid; that, when ingested by horses, can be fatal. The toxin causes methemoglobinemia that interferes with the ability of the blood’s hemoglobin to deliver oxygen to the body’s tissues.

Finally, there are several legends associated with maple trees. In Greek mythology the tree is associated with Phobos, the god of terror. The Odyssey’s story of the Trojan Horse (made with maple wood) describes how Greek soldiers were able to take the city of Troy.

Next time you walk through the park and admire the beautiful colours of autumn – think of the complexity of photosynthesis in a single leaf and please don’t taste the red maple’s leaves!

Images: Michael Walsh

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Michael Walsh - WestmountMag.ca

Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He is happily retired from nearly four decades in the field of higher education technology. A “professional student” by nature, his academic training and publishing include statistical methodology, mycology and animal psychology. Today, he enjoys spending time walking with his dog while discovering the city’s past and sharing stories of the majestic trees that grace the parks and streets. He can be contacted at michaelld2003 @hotmail.com or through his blog Westmount Overlooked

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  1. Nancy Gross

    Really enjoyed this article and the sense of humour about the red maple! Thanks for sharing your research and photos for all of us to enjoy.

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