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On Gardening: In the right conditions, Southern sugar maple is golden

December 28, 2015
 

There is gold in those leaves particularly if you grow the tree many call the Southern sugar maple. This tree is native from Texas to Florida and as far north as Missouri and Illinois. In other words, many of us and grow it and relish in all of its fall glory. There is a catch to the story.

Botanically speaking it is somewhat of a taxonomic nightmare with many scientists turning it into what might resemble a political battle. One of my favorite Internet reference sights in the world of horticulture and nature comes from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org. So I give them complete credit for the next few words ó the botanical name according to them is Acer barbatum with the Synonym(s): Acer barbatum var. longii, Acer barbatum var. villipes, Acer floridanum, Acer floridanum var. longii, Acer floridanum var. villipes, Acer nigrum var. floridanum, Acer saccharinum var. floridanum, Acer saccharum ssp. floridanum, Acer saccharum var. floridanum, Saccharodendron barbatum, Saccharodendron floridanum.

Now you see the dilemma. This incredible native tree that deserves to be admired, loved and planted will be a challenge for you to locate. The first issue is that it is native and the second problem will be what-do-you tell your nurseryman. Here at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens it has been a tree of mystical color, especially when you add a little Spanish moss.

In fact many of the trees are coming out of a sugar high giving us some great fall color. A sugar high may not be ideal in children, but our trees certainly rewarded us as that extra sugar got stored in their systems.

When we look at fall color scientifically, words like carotenoids, pigments, chlorophyll, auxin, gibberellins, other growth hormones and enzymes enter into the discussion. Those words cause me to have a rapid heartbeat as I think back to plant physiology classes.

In simplistic terms conditions for great fall color boils down to cool night temperatures and warm, sunny days. The climate has the biggest effect on the production of anthocyanin pigments that intensify the red and scarlet colors. Conditions that favor these colors are sunny days and nighttime temperatures between 45 degrees and freezing. Much of our area experienced this without any freezing temperatures to date.

Even though the chlorophyll content of the leaf declines in the fall, it is still important that photosynthesis take place. If an abundance of cloudy weather prevents photosynthesis from occurring, leaf color will be mediocre even if temperatures are ideal. This also can weaken the leaf, making it easy for a northern wind to blow it off the tree.

Cool night temperatures limit the movement of sugar from the leaves. It also reduces the rate of respiration in the leaf, so some sugars are converted to carbon dioxide. Those sugars retained however are converted to colorful anthocyanin pigments, hence the sugar high connotation.

Even with perfect climatic conditions, if we donít have the best species of trees, we are lost from the start. Start with a good species like the Southern sugar maple, which just happens to also be the rock maple, Caddo maple and Florida maple and hammock maple.

You can expect yours to reach a height of 20 to 25 feet with a rounded shape. The National champion is in Georgia and has a height of 100 feet by 64 feet so it does have some extra potential. It also has a good track record of being resistant to both wind and ice. Oh just for the record the USDA says the official name is Acer floridanum.

 

 


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