Friday, February 24, 2012

LOOK FOR: Maple Flowers

Maples are one of the earliest trees to bloom in our area -- a sure sign of spring. But not many people see them...they're up high, and they're not super-showy. When the light hits it right, though, the entire crown of a maple tree in flower will light up in red or yellow. So, as you're walking around this week, look up for something like this:

Maple Flowers
Photo credit: jpwbee

Maple flowers are insect-pollinated, and an important early-season source of food for insects. As the weather warms up enough for the bees and other pollinators to get active, there's not a lot else going on for them besides the maples.

Spring delicacy
Photo credit: Anita363
Squirrels also like to feast on the flowers. For the last several mornings, we've been watching them go to town on our neighbor's silver maple, hanging upside down to get to the last flowers on the end of a branch.

The maples can take it -- they bloom so profusely, the squirrels hardly make a dent. Each one of the female flowers that gets pollinated will form one of those helicopter-like seed pods (technically, samaras) that fall down in the spring. Many years, our neighbor's samaras carpet our yard. The squirrels eat those too. And then what seems like a million baby maple trees still come up from the leftovers.

(Apparently I might not be exaggerating -- the Forest Service says a 12-inch diameter red maple can produce a million seeds. And our neighbor's tree is probably 3 times that wide.)

Red Maple Flowers

Photo credit: BlueRidgeKitties
You'll see I said female flowers produce the seeds -- maples have flowers that are either male or female.

The male flowers are a little fluffier looking, due to all their pollen-producing stamens.

Female flowers are a little more sedate, waiting for that pollen to come their way. But they still have their own frills.

Plant geek bonus points: Many maple trees have only male or only female flowers. Some have both male and female flowers -- but usually on different branches. If you come across a maple tree with accessible branches, can you tell whether it's male, female, or monoecious?

The rest of us will just appreciate the fact that there are flowers to look at this early in the year.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Postcards from Honduras

On this blog we celebrate all the great nature here in the DC area, but I have a confession: we go away almost every winter. I'm a southerner who craves warmth and longer days, and Matt's a landscaper whose work gets pretty slow in December and January. This year, after heading to my hometown in Florida for Christmas, we headed even further south: to Honduras. It was a great trip -- below are some of my favorite photos. We've got lots more pictures  here. And I'll try to get some new, local content up here soon!