A sure sign that “Spring has sprung” here in Medford is the welcome appearance of the bright yellow-green flowers of Norway maple trees (‘Acer platanoides’). Maple trees have FLOWERS?, you may ask. Yes, indeed, maple trees have flowers, although you have to look closely at maples to see and appreciate their flowers which emerge in spring, before their leaves appear in May.
With Norway maples, flowers are tiny, with a daisy-like arrangement of five petals, in dense clusters. Flowers are bright yellow-green, which in my view is perfectly matched to a Crayola crayon color introduced in 1972, called “Chartreuse”. Since Norway maples are the most common street tree in Medford and the majority of cities in Massachusetts, as well as abundant on private property, their early flowering brings bright spring color to our local landscapes.
Norway maples are native to Europe, but were introduced to the U.S. in the 1750’s and have since become “naturalized” here, meaning growing freely in the wild. Many decades ago, Norway maples became extremely popular for planting as city shade trees because they grow quickly, provide excellent shade, and could reach tall heights without much care. At the time many people hoped Norway maples would be the replacement for American elms, which previously shaded our communities but were wiped out almost completely by an imported beetle pest and subsequent Dutch elm disease.
Unfortunately, Norway maples have become an invasive species, meaning they crowd out other valuable and native trees and plants. It is now illegal to buy or sell Norway maples in Massachusetts.
Those of us who are over about the age of 50 and grew up in cities around New England were most likely surrounded by Norway maples. They formed green canopies over our streets, cooled our homes before anyone had air-conditioning, beautified our neighborhoods with green leaves in summer and yellow foliage in fall, and presented a stark beauty in winter. City birds and animals congregated in Norway maples, giving them shelter and to some extent, a food source. They also provided us people at least a sense of wildlife and nature, as well as a greater awareness of the change of seasons.
While we do have a great number of Norway maples on our city streets, the numbers are declining as the old trees die off. We now plant a diverse selection of trees, native and non-native, with the goal of planting “Right Tree/Right Place” for greatest success.
The Norway maple trees in the photo line the edge of Tufts Park along Morton Ave.
Happy Spring and Happy Arbor Day on Friday, April 28th!