By rights, Canada’s national symbol should be a pinecone.
Pines grow all across Canada. They resist cold, dry, wet and windy weather like true Canadians.
But we’re stuck with the maple leaf.
Here are some things you may not know about Canada’s national tree.
The maple leaf wasn’t always on Canada’s flag. In fact, Canada didn’t have its own flag until 1965, 96 years after it became a country. Before that Canada used the British Union Jack or the Red Ensign.
As the centennial approached, there was more pressure for Canada to have its own flag. “The Flag Debate” was a heated time in Canadian history. The Liberals and New Democrats wanted maple leaves. The Conservative party liked the British history of the Red Ensign, but French Canadians understandably did not want a British flag.
A call for flag ideas went out, and 5,900 designs poured into Ottawa. It took parliament 37 days to agree on the one we know today.
As a Canadian symbol, the maple leaf dates back to 1700. It popped up in crests, badges, songs, and on the Canadian soldiers’ uniforms during the World Wars. From 1876 and 1901 it was on the back of every coin, not just the penny.
Not a Canadian Exclusive
Of the 150 maple tree species, China has 100 and Canada only has 10. We make up for it in syrup and maple leaf merchandise.
Most of Canada’s maples grow east of Manitoba. They say one species grows in every province, but that means the arctic territories are maple-less. Like I said, pine trees would be a better national symbol because they grow everywhere.
The maple tree wasn’t actually Canada’s official tree until 1996. Oops. There’s a “make like a tree and leaf” joke here somewhere.
What makes a maple a maple?
I’m glad you asked! All maples have winged fruit called keys or samaras. Samara is botany-speak for helicopter seeds. If you see double-bladed helicopter seeds, it’s probably a maple.
I see your true colours
The leaf on Canada’s flag is red, which means all maples turn red in the fall, right? Wrong! It depends on the species. Autumn colours can range from yellow, pink, and orange to deep red and purple. This makes fall in Southern Ontario a veritable rainbow.
You can’t even count on Red Maples to have red leaves-some varieties go yellow or orange. Leaf colour also depends on how hot the summer was, and how cold the fall is.
The leaves of the Red Maple can kill horses. Yes, that’s right, these pretty red leaves are toxic when they’re dry. If a horse eats too many their red blood cells start exploding. Not good. They die of lack of oxygen, which red blood cells carry. However, fresh leaves are completely safe for horses. Nature is weird.
How sweet it is
The Sugar Maple leaf is the one on the Canadian flag. As you may have guessed, this is the tree maple syrup comes from. Canada produces 85% of the world’s maple syrup, and most of it is exported.
Humans aren’t the only ones that steal this tree’s sap. Squirrels will eat off the spring buds to get a taste of sweet nectar. Birds and squirrels will also eat the seeds out of the samara. Luckily for them, Sugar Maples have a bumper-crop every 2-5 years.
Ideally, these seeds will turn into baby trees. Unfortunately, deer love to munch on the seedlings. Gulp, no more tree. Seedlings can survive this abuse, but grow into deformed trees. If they survive this long, they can live from 200-400 years.
Sugar Maples have flowers! They’re tiny little green things pollinated by bees. Most trees have both hermaphroditic and single sex flowers. Bizarre.
Not all maple leaves look like the Canadian flag. The Manitoba Maple’s look really different. These trees are super successful because they grow in a lot of different soils. They like to hang out with their friends in forests, as well as in disturbed areas and along rivers. They are found in most Prairie Provinces. Their seeds are important winter food for birds and squirrels, and moose snack on the twigs.
Norway Maples were imported to Canada in 1778 from Eurasia. They were a popular city tree because they resist pollution. After Dutch Elm flattened many urban elms, Norway maples became the favorite tree of urban developers. Now they’re everywhere. If you see a maple with large yellow or purple leaves, that’s a Norway Maple.
Unfortunately, this invasive tree jumped out of cities and started crowding-out and out-competing native maples. It’s very successful because it has a long growing season and makes 2000 seeds a year.
Also, we learned pretty quickly that they are awful city trees. Unlike Sugar Maples, Norway Maples only live around 60 years. At 35 the wood starts to weaken, and you end up with branches on your car after a snowstorm. Needless to say, it isn’t planted any more.
There you go, more than you wanted to know about Maple trees! Now get out there and try to find one.