and Their Stories /8
The Maple Trees in Westmount Park
By Michael Walsh
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.
Autumn in Westmount Park – one has to admit that the tree colours are quite spectacular.
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 and discover the stories behind the park’s maple trees.
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.
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.
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.
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 again 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.
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.
Although 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!
Read also: Westmount trees and their stories /7
Michael Walsh is a long-time Westmount resident. He enjoys walking with the family’s Saint Bernard while photographing the beauty and hidden history of Westmount through his blog at Westmount Overlooked.