Monday, August 27, 2012

Life of a Maple Part 3: The Maple Tree and Sunlight

When it comes to soil, Sugar Maples are pretty picky.  When it comes to sunlight however, maples aren't picky at all.  Other trees, such as oaks, prefer to have as much sunlight as possible through out their entire lifespan.  Maples however can do quite well with very low levels of light early on in life.  This is a very fortunate adaptation being the most ideal soils for maples are typically going to be located in the shade of large trees.  Lots of, but not complete, shade aids the germination and early sprouts of maples.  However, maple seedlings will often have stunted growth in very low light situations.  Small seedlings and saplings are capable of surviving many years in the shade of larger trees.  Other sun loving trees such as oaks simply would die due to lack of sunlight.  These small maple trees simply wait until the larger tree dies and is removed by ice storms, wind, or disease.  The wait for an older maple to die can be a long one though being they are capable of living 500 years. 

Once these over-story trees are out of the way, smaller trees that had waited patiently in the shade for years suddenly make a bolt for the sky until becoming a dominant tree in the forest canopy.  This cycle can then repeat itself many times over with younger maples replacing older maples.  This self sustaining process of the Sugar Maple forest will continue unless significant disturbance such as fire or major drought take place.  If disturbance does happen, plants that require more light, such as grasslands or oak forests, will replace the maple trees.  Given time though, and lack of disturbance, after a hundred or more years the maples will replace sun loving trees such as oaks and will again dominate the forest.  This process of one plant community replacing another plant community is called succession.  Maple forests typically are the last stage in succession, which is called the climax plant community. 

Slow growth, long life, and tolerance for shade are what make the maple a climax forest species.  Faster growing trees with shorter lives typically require lots of light and occupy areas after a major disturbance such as fire.  The slow growing maple tolerates the shade and out live these faster short lived species.   Shade tolerance is one of the most important adaptations maples have to being a late successional climax tree.  There are a number of more minor adaptations that aid in the overall shade tolerance of maple.  First off, maples form large thin leaves that gather light very well.  Leaves lack pubescence, or hairiness, which would block light.  These leaves also grow to orient themselves in a manner that helps them gather the most sun light.  Pigments inside of the leaves also are especially adapted to gathering far red light which is abundant in shady environments.  Lastly, maples produce a huge number of leaves in their canopies in order to catch as much light as possible.  Such a great density of leaves are produced by Sugar Maples that the top 10 percent of leaves gather 60 percent of the total sunlight. 

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