Friday, November 07, 2008

Blaze Away Aiken!

“Let us have a good many maples and hickories and scarlet oaks, then, I say. Blaze away! … A village is not complete, unless it have these trees to mark the season in it. They are important, like the town clock.” Author and naturalist, Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau would be happy in Aiken I think. Aiken is Blazing Away, as the man says, with autumn color. The Maples, first in his list of necessary trees, have made a breathtaking appearance this season.

Maples belong to the genus Acer, a word that comes from a Latin word meaning “sharp,” since most of the maples have pointed leaves. There are many handsome maples, and, many are quite happy in our Aiken soil and climate. Maples are deciduous trees grown for shade and color and, in the case of the northern grown sugar maple (Acer saccharum) for the syrup made from their sap. The wood of maple is sometimes used in furniture, and the neck of a Fender Stratocaster Electric guitar is also made of maple wood.

The fruit of a maple tree is a winged seed called a “samara,” or commonly called a “key.” These little whirlybirds are fun to watch and are attractive to wildlife, and very likely were your first exposure to the science lesson of how seeds are spread by nature.

There are four species of maple tree adapted to all areas of South Carolina, according to the Clemson extension. Red maple (Acer rubrum), Japanese maple (A. palmatum), southern sugar maple (A. barbatum) and chalkbark maple (A. leucoderme) are fairly easy to grow. Bob McCartney of Woodlanders Nursery tells me that the northern grown sugar maple grows well here too.

The ideal soil for most maples is rich, porous and well-drained. Most do well in a fairly wide soil pH range, although many favor slightly acid soil. Red and silver maples thrive in fairly wet soils. Some maples tolerate moderate drought. Most thrive in full sun or partial shade. Some should be protected from the sun to prevent leaf scorch and provided irrigation.

Japanese Maples trees come in a great range of sizes, from under six feet to 40 or 50 feet tall. They are slow growers, but we don’t mind, because the leaves, which can be narrowly or broadly dissected, are so exquisite in color and form, sometimes arching and spreading gracefully down, other times projecting up, that we take them anyway they come.

Some Japanese Maples have red foliage in the spring as new leaves emerge, change to green in summer and run red again in the fall. Others emerge green and remain so until fall, when they become a showy copper, orange, red or yellow. The Japanese Maple can be used as a small lawn specimen, an accent plant, a patio tree, a container plant, or in grouping.

Be sure to plant a Japanese Maple in dappled shade, as direct sunlight may scorch the leaves in summer. Too much shade, Clemson warns, may cause the tree to grow more slowly and purple leaves to become more green. Prune in late summer or early fall and prune only branches or trunks that rub against each other. Once established, keep pruning to a minimum.

A non-dissected leaf of a Japanese maple looks sort of like a hand with fingers. Cultivars in the Non-dissected group are “Bloodgood’ and the slightly smaller, ‘Burgundy Lace.’
A dissected leaf has narrow cut leaves. Those in the dissected group are lower growing (8 to 10 feet) and include ‘Crimson queen,’ ‘Waterfall,’ and ‘Inaba Shidare.’

We can spot another maple species – the Red Maples, in spring, while driving around the highways of South Carolina, by the showy red clusters of flowers that sprout on the branches in early spring.

Plant your red maple in moist, slightly acidic, fertile soil. It likes partial shade but will also thrive in full sun. Clemson mentions ‘Columnare,’ ‘October Glory,’ and ‘Autumn Flame’ as good cultivars. Woodlanders Nursery offers an unusual variety called ‘Candy Ice’ with variegated leaves. Cold Creek also carries Red Maples.

The Southern Sugar Maple (Acer barbatum - AKA Acer floridanum), like the ones growing on York Street in front of Wade and Sissy Brodie’s are large trees that show off their spectacular yellow color this time of year. The three trees also have a job to do in summer. Planted on the west side of the Brodie’s house, next to the street, they provide shade from the hottest summer sun. Woodlanders also carries these.

I’ve read that the yankee version of the Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum, doesn’t perform well in these parts, but if you’ve ridden by the Aiken Standard Building in the last week or two, you’d have to disagree. Those Sugar Maples, Acer saccharum, have put on a dazzling display this year. I don’t know if the folks at the Standard have tried harvesting syrup from the tree, but theoretically, at least, they could.

That Sugar Maple is a large tree, slow growing and long lived. The leaf colors range from yellow to orange and red with attractive pale yellow flowers in the spring. Plant your sugar maple in fertile, moist, slightly acidic, well-drained soil.

If you ever wonder why you like living in Aiken, drive around town this weekend and see just what a beautiful town in is. Thoreau would have to admit that it is, indeed, complete.

While you’re out, don’t miss “St.Thaddeus Creates” this Saturday and Sunday in the church gym. There will be lots of handcrafted items, all ready for Christmas, and part of the earnings go to local outreach projects and to Mead Hall.