Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), is not a tree for your garden. It grows too tall (up to 75 feet), spreads too wide (as much as 50 feet). It’s big and abundant leaves produce heavy shade, then nearly smother the ground below in Autumn. The color in that season, while a pleasing yellow, is hardly a spectacle to take your breath away, compared to the show put on by other deciduous trees. And while Bigleaf Maple is long-lived, in time, major branches become brittle and break off. It’s a tree you really don’t want to be under in a high wind.
So why write about it? Well, this native is everywhere in our parks and forests, along old roads where it holds its own with Alders, Douglas Firs, Cedar and Hemlocks. It is a staple to the eco system of the Pacific Northwest forests, home to innumerable micro organisms and other critters. In its dotage, gnarled, often broken, but still stately, it looks like the subject of a Japanese woodcut. Encountering one on a hike, you’re likely to find a tree that has rotted out in the center, producing a sizable cavity, big enough for a gnome or possible a snoozing animal.
You’ll see Bigleaf Maples all around Madison Park, dotting public areas, sometimes lining streets. Watch children picking up fallen Fall leaves and if they are large enough to easily cover the young face, you know you’re near this regional icon. It grows in moist areas from Southern Alaska to Northern California, likely more at home here than in any of its habitats.
Should you find yourself the owner of an established garden and it has one of these maples, you have a couple of choices. Live with it and love it, but have it checked periodically by a reputable tree service who will prune it judiciously, maintaining its natural form. Or you can cut it down. Should you be ambitious enough, you can have the wood milled and used later for table tops or other pieces of furniture. Burls on the oldest of these trees fetch hug prices for makers of everything from cabinets to bowls and musical instruments.
With the onset of Winter, Bigleaf Maples take on a dramatic beauty. Vigorous limbs stretch up and out and the damaged branches look artistic. An assortment of mosses will bring emerald and celadon greens to the silvery-gray and blackness of the ruggedly barked trunks and Licorice Ferns will often line the major limbs. When a snow arrives, like the one we had in early February of this year, it clings to the wood, turning the tree into an ethereal vision, a fantasy of the season.
There are a number of plants that grow in our benevolent climate and rich soil that are not suited to the home garden. Little does that matter. It’s a bit like wildlife watching, or Moon gazing. While you would not want to cage a wild animal or lasso the Moon, you never fail to thrill at the sight of either one. You mark their location, learn their response to the seasons and seek them out, like old friends, to look at and love from afar with never a craving for ownership. And that, after all, is one of the great luxuries of living in a place where nature gives us far, far more than we ourselves have the capability to possess, a place where nature so dwarfs us that we can only adore it from a distance.