COMMON NAME: Bigleaf Maple, Big-leaf Maple, Oregon Maple, Broad-leaved Maple, Common Maple
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Acer macrophyllum
This species of maple is characterized as being a large multi-stemmed tree that can grow up 30 or 35 m tall. As the tree grows, new branches have a greenish colour, sometimes reddish, and are quite smooth. As these branches age they become greyish brown and trunks and branches often are covered in thick layers of mosses and ferns. Sometimes these mosses and ferns can be so extensive that it is difficult to see any portion of the bark at all. Leaves of the Bigleaf Maple are deeply lobed and have five distinct lobes to each leaf. The leaf in total can grow between 15 and 30 cm across and is distinguished by its dark green above and light green below appearance. In spring as the leaves begin to appear, and sometimes before this, the flower clusters appear in their hanging clusters of greenish-yellow. These flowers turn into v-shaped winged seeds later in the season and have evolved to grow in pairs aiding in their dispersal. As Autumn approaches and the leaves turn a vibrant yellow the seeds fall from the trees and can be seen spinning around like the blades of a helicopter thus advancing their distribution over a greater area.
HABITAT & RANGE
The Bigleaf Maple can be found along the southern coast of British Columbia and in the coastal regions of Washington State. It prefers moist forested hills and lowlands often where Douglas-firs grow alongside it. Growing at low to middle elevations it is often seen growing in places where fire or logging activities have impacted the landscape.
THE MAPLE’S SWEET SUGARY SAP AND OTHER USES
Maples are often best known by the world for the sweet flowing sap that runs along its limbs in Spring and Summer. When boiled down through different processes this sugary sap creates maple syrup and constitutes a large industry in Canada. Most maple syrup that is on the market is made from the Sugar Maple, which grows on the east coast of Canada. The Bigleaf Maple, however, is largely considered the sweetest of west coast maples and because of it is widely used for its sap. Pegs are driven into the trunks of the maple in early Spring when the sap begins to travel back up into the upper limbs of the trees. As it is collected the sap is then transferred into large vats where it is boiled down into athick golden brown syrup.
Traditionally First Nations people along the coast did not use the Bigleaf Maple for its sap. Instead, other parts of the tree were utilized, the leaves being one part. Some groups died the leaves and used them to spice meats while the Saanich and Cowichan would place layers of the fresh leaves in steaming pits along with meats in order to give flavouring to them. The flowers are also edible and were eaten fresh and can be added to salads.
In many First Nations languages the maple is known as “paddle tree” because its wood was coveted as a good source for making canoe paddles. These paddles were both important for their use but also for their symbolism. Often these paddles were carved with family crests on each side giving an exact rendering of the ownership of each individual paddle. The wood was also used for a number of other tools and instruments. Arrows, spear handles, tongs for cooking, bowls, and drum hoops are just some of the tools that traditional craftsmen would employ this special tree for.
Alaback, Paul, Joe Antos, Trevor Goward, Ken Lertzman, Andy MacKinnon, Jim Pojar, Rosamund Pojar, Andrew Reed, Nancy Turner, and Dale Vitt
1994 Plants of Coastal British Columbia including Washington, Oregon & Alaska. Vancouver: Lone Pine Publishing.
MacKinnon, Kershaw, Arnason, Owen, Karst, and Hamersley Chambers
2009 Edible & Medicinal Plants of Canada. Edmonton: Lone Pine Publishing.
Turner, Nancy J
1995 Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. Victoria: Royal BC Museum.
Bryce has a background in ethnobotany and cultural anthropology. He is the Co-founder and President of Forager Foundation and has interests in Traditional Knowledge and cultural preservation.