EarthLabs > Climate and the Biosphere > Lab 1: Climate, Weather, and Trees > 1B: Case Study: Life of a Maple Tree

Climate, Weather, and Trees

Part B: Case Study: Life of a Maple Tree

Imagine what your life would be like if you could live for hundreds of years; some maple trees can do just that! Use the series of pictures in the image, right, to visualize a year in the life of a three - hundred year old maple tree near Burlington, Vermont. As you are viewing, imagine the weather conditions that the tree has endured. As it grew, what types of weather did it experience, and what other historical events might it have "witnessed?" Picture in your mind typical New England weather over the course of a single year, as well as the lifetime of this tree. In the labs to follow, this maple tree will be used as the case study to demonstrate the impact of weather and climate on the biosphere (life).

Click the link for the maple tree in four seasons images as a printable PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 7.9MB Apr1 12) file. To download the PDF file, right-click on the link and choose "Save File As" or "Save Link As..." or other similar command.

Next, read the following information about the sugar maple tree. While reading, collect the following information about the tree. Take notes on a piece of paper or in your notebook.

  • How many years can the sugar maple live?
  • What types of soils does it prefer?
  • What is its minimum temperature range?
  • Does it tolerate drought?

More about sugar maple trees

The sugar maple, acer saccharum, a native tree to North America, is the most common type of maple tree in the eastern United States. It is a hardwood tree with a moderate to slow growth rate. Maples trees can live to be 400 years old. At maturity, this type of maple will grow to be 20-35 meters (60-80 feet) tall. The sugar maple tree needs moderate rainfall, it does not like to sit in damp soil, nor is it especially drought tolerant. Although it is most commonly found in New England and the Midwestern States, it can grow as far south as Texas and Florida and west to California, in USDA plant zones 3-8. (Source: U.S. Forest Service Sugar Maple Fact Sheet (Acrobat (PDF) 261kB Jul5 15))

Plant hardiness zone calculations include minimum annual temperatures, as well as temperature extremes. These maps are one indicator of climatic zones. Note the temperature scale on the bottom left of the map. What zone do you live in?

To learn more about hardiness zones, view an interactive zone map, or find your own zone, visit the Arbor Day Foundation website. Hardiness Zone Map

The sugar maple grows best in nutrient-rich, loamy soil. It is not tolerant of salty soils, nor soils that are highly compacted, such as near parking lots or playing fields. It has sturdy branches that are not susceptible to high wind, but may break in ice storms (due to the weight of the ice). The sugar maple has a dense crown of leaves that turn brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow in the fall. For this reason, it is a popular shade tree in the landscape of many homes, as well as an iconic image of New England.

Maple syrup and climate

The sugar maple tree is best known for its production of a sugary sap that can be made into many forms of edible treats, like maple syrup and candy. Trees can be tapped for sap production when they are 25 cm (10 inches) in diameter or approximately 40-50 years old. The Native American population was the first to discover this valuable delicacy. It takes approximately 40 liters of maple sap to make one liter of syrup. For the past 150 years the production of maple syrup has been an important agricultural industry in many New England and Midwestern states. In Vermont alone, the industry generates well over 15 million dollars a year, supporting many rural families. (Source: U.S. Forest Service)

Now that you know some background about the maple tree, learn more about the sugaring process and the climate by watching this 3-minute video about a farming family's experiences sugaring in the state of WisconsinSugaring Wisconsin.

Stop and Think

  1. Describe the ideal growing conditions for the sugar maple. Be as specific as possible; include temperature and rainfall needs as well as other information from the text and videos.
  2. Compare and contrast the sugar maple tree to the plant that you described in Lab 1A. How are they similar or different?
  3. Describe the maple sugaring process. Why is "sugaring" an important signal of the arrival of Spring?
  4. How is maple sugaring dependent on weather and climate?