This large, multi-trunked tree offers a home to mosses, lichens, ferns, insects, birds, squirrels, and other animals. Large leaves create a shady, protective canopy. Each autumn, bigleaf maple releases multitudes of leaves and seeds, which fall to the ground and feed the forest floor. Through welcoming many species and sharing its gifts, bigleaf maple makes new life possible.
Identifying Bigleaf Maple: Bigleaf maple (Acer macrophyllum) thrives in wet forests and open fields. Young bark is green and smooth, while mature bark becomes furrowed and gray-brown in color. Older trees are often covered in mosses and licorice ferns. Massive leaves have five tips like a hand and can grow over a foot in diameter. Flowers bloom in March through April before leaves emerge. They are greenish-yellow and hang in clusters. Each flower is bowl-shaped, cupping many pistils with a downy fur at their base, resembling a tiny bird nest. Bees and other insects harvest the sweet nectar. Fruits are shaped like wings attached in a V pattern. They emerge from the flowers looking like bunny ears popping out of a hole. Once fully developed in late summer, they travel like helicopters in the wind.
Bigleaf maple leaves fall in great quantities in the autumn, providing hiding places for insects and eventually breaking down into compost that contributes to healthy soil. Each spring, thousands of seeds germinate, but only a few survive through summer. Bigleaf maple can grow nine feet in a single year and can live as long as 300 years.
Food: Bigleaf maple flowers are harvested in spring when they are budding on the tip and are fully open at the base of the flower cluster. They are full of sweet nectar and pollen. Try eating the flowers straight, using them as a garnish on salads or soups, or add them to baked goods like pancakes. The tasty, young sprouting branch tips can be peeled then eaten straight or added to salads. They become bitter and tough as they get larger. Bigleaf maple leaves are traditionally used for pit roasting and for wrapping food. In early spring, bigleaf maple trees can be tapped to gather sap. This is heated and reduced into maple syrup.
Maple Flower Fritters
These fritters are delicious with maple syrup and cinnamon on top! You can also use pancake or biscuit mix and dip the flower clusters into the batter.
10–15 maple flower clusters
½ cup flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
A pinch of salt
¼ cup milk
¼ cup oil (sunflower, coconut, or another high-heat oil)
Herbs and spices of your choice
Mix flour, baking powder, salt, and herbs or spices in a bowl. In another bowl, whisk eggs with milk. Turn a medium-sized sauté pan on medium-high heat and add oil. Once heated, dip maple flower clusters in the egg mixture, dust them with flour mixture, and place in the pan. When fritters are golden, flip, and let them brown on the other side. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.
Traditional Technologies: Bigleaf maple wood burns clean and does not spark making it a preferred firewood in the summertime to prevent forest fires. It is also good for smoking salmon. The inner bark of the branches can be harvested in the springtime and used to make strong cordage for rope and basketry materials. Bigleaf maple is called the “paddle tree” by many Northwest tribes and is traditionally used for canoe paddles, basketry, house construction, cradleboards, bowls, spoons, and other implements. The large leaves are traditionally used by many tribes in food preparation including covering food, in baking pits, and to lay fish on while cleaning it.
Ecological Relationships: Bigleaf maple is a hospitable tree that willingly hosts many different species. It is important to the larger forest community for many reasons. Its bark is full of water and nutritious calcium, supporting plants that grow on trees called epiphytes. Bigleaf maple has the largest epiphyte (plants that grow on other plants) load of any tree in the Pacific Northwest tree. Overtime, these epiphytes form a layer of soil on top of the branches, which the tree then taps into through branch-top roots absorbing needed water and minerals. This is a great example of mutualism: a symbiotic relationship that is beneficial to all species involved. Some of the specific species that grow on bigleaf maple include lichens, club moss, other mosses, and licorice fern.
In spring, bigleaf maple’s budding flowers feed pollinators such as bees and butterflies. In the fall, bigleaf maple seeds feed birds and small animals including chipmunks, salamanders, and other amphibians. When bigleaf maple grows near salmon spawning streams, the shade provides much needed shelter for salmon and their eggs. Larger animals, like elk and deer, also forage off bigleaf maple. Even dead bigleaf maple is hospitable. Fallen branches rot quickly and send nutrients rapidly back into the forest or streams.
Learning from Bigleaf Maple – Willingness
Imagine an old bigleaf maple tree that is firmly planted in the ground and reaching high into the forest canopy. All along the trunk and branches, you will see a variety of mosses, lichens, and ferns. If you get up close, you might find insects living in the plants growing on the tree. Golden spring blossoms feed bees and other insects. Squirrels sprint up the trunk for safety and hop through the branches. Birds sing and chirp down at you.
Bigleaf maple is a reminder of willingness. Notice how it invites a community to grow on its trunk and branches—showing us how we can be with others in an open and generous way. We can also “try on” new experiences and perspectives with an open mind.
Bigleaf maple also teaches us to be willing to let go—as it releases little helicoptering seeds and then leaves in autumn, which blanket the forest floor. In winter, the leaves decompose and release nutrients into the soil. This process feeds the next growth of leaves and buds in spring. In contrast to being willing, notice when you are feeling willful. Are you denying, pushing away, or ignoring something? Can letting go of willfulness allow for growth, change, and new opportunities?
- How can I let go and be open to this situation?
- Where is my body holding tension? Am I willing to breathe and let go?
- In what ways can I become more willing?
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Lloyd, Abe. Wild Harvests Blog. http://arcadianabe.blogspot.com/2013/02/bigleaf-maple-syrup.html
Pojar, J. and MacKinnon, A. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. 1994. Lone Pine
Turner, N. and Hebda, R. Saanich Ethnobotany. 2012. Royal BC Museum Publishing.