Big-leaf maples can be covered in so much green moss, lichen and fern that they look like refugees from an Arthurian legend.
That coat has earned the trees, which can be as tall as 114 feet with branches that can spread more than 60 feet from the crown, the distinction of having more moss and other plants on its trunk and branches than any other tree found along the coast of the Pacific Northwest. There’s a reason why other green things latch onto the maple.
“The bark of the tree looks like corduroy pants, (with) long ridges running up and down the trunk. These ridges allow water to collect, making great places for moss and ferns to grow. You may have seen licorice fern growing high in a big-leaf maple,” says Rae Edwards, a naturalist and volunteer coordinator for Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department.
The green-yellow blooms open in spring and hang in clusters.
“The flowers come first and are very delicate and have a vanilla-like fragrance,” Edwards says.Those blooms also produce the trees’ most recognizable feature, at least to most youngsters.
“The flower produces the seed that kids call ‘helicopters.’ They are a seed with a single wing that spiral to the earth. The seed is called a samara,” Edwards explains.
New leaves also have their own beauty.
“I think they look like little unfolding fairies when they first leaf out,” says Holly Roger, a naturalist at Tennant Lake Interpretive Center in Ferndale.
The trees’ leaves eventually will grow until they’re 15 inches wide. In the fall, they turn a golden yellow.
Big-leaf maples are a vital food source for wildlife. Honeybees and butterflies like the flowers; squirrels and birds such as evening grosbeaks eat the seeds; deer and elk munch on fresh leaves and saplings.Many of the region’s native coastal people called big-leaf maple “paddle tree” because they used the wood to make paddles.
Sources: Local naturalists Rae Edwards and Holly Roger; “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon; Department of Ecology.