Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Acer rubrum, or Red Maple. While not quite as illustrious as its more northerly (read: Canadian) cousin the Sugar Maple, this tree still provides a wealth of resources year-round. Red maple is one of the most widespread trees in the Eastern Woodlands, found in deep timber and recent clearings alike. If you spend any time outdoors in the South, you will undoubtedly encounter it. It’s well worth knowing what to do with it when you do.
Red maple is a medium-to-large deciduous hardwood tree. These are not the tallest trees in the forest, but they’re not the shortest either, living in neither the understory nor the canopy. They generally inhabit the middle layer of a mature forest, topping out at 80’ or so. They occasionally get larger, but it’s rare. They branch alternately, which helps with identification in the winter. Young trees have very smooth, light gray bark that’s reminiscent of a beech. Over time, fissures and ridges slowly appear until the bark is a deep, gnarled brown on the main trunk getting smoother the farther up the tree you go.
Leaves are, well, maple-shaped. They are 1-4” across, medium green, with three lobes and toothed margins. All maples have a similar leaf shape (except the box elder, but that’s another post), but the easiest way to identify red maple is by its red leaf stems. They retain their color year round and are a feature shared only with the Chalk Maple, which is a rare tree that only grows in the Piedmont and Coastal Plain region and has bright white bark.
Red maple is named for the color of its flowers, stems, leaf buds, and seeds, which are a deep, rich red. The leaves will occasionally turn red in the fall as well, but this is entirely dependent on the chemistry of the soil it’s growing in. Sometimes they’re orange, yellow, or just a disappointing brown.
Red maples aren’t picky about their growing conditions. They’ll thrive almost anywhere. You’ll see them in damp creek bottoms alongside basswood and sycamore, and high up on dry, rocky ridgelines with oaks and hickories. They’re fast growers, and are often among the first to re-colonize cleared land. Maple wood is very straight-grained, heavy, and durable, although not particularly hard. It doesn’t have the hardness of oak or the lightness of pine, so it isn’t used as structural lumber. One construction application it excels in, however, is school gym floors. Its springiness and shock resistance is perfect for playing basketball on. It also makes great butcher blocks and cutting boards. Wood from old maples can have gorgeous, exotic-looking grain patterns such as fiddleback, birdseye, and curly, and is prized worldwide for furniture, art, and cabinetry.
For bushcraft purposes, red maple is decent. That’s the best way to describe it, because it doesn’t really excel at anything, but it’s not bad for anything either. It makes decent batons, decent firewood, decent shelter poles, etc. It’s the kid on the team that isn’t great at anything, but is reliable and always around when you need him… since red maple is everywhere, it’s a tree you can rely on that will work decently well for a wide variety of uses.
If we’re going to talk about the edible uses of red maple, we’ve got to get the burning, obvious question out of the way first: Can you make syrup out of it? Yes, as a matter of fact, you can. The sap of red maples is not as high in natural sugars as the maples whose names reflect their suitability for the task, such as Sugar maple (Acer saccharium) and Silver maple (Acer saccharinium), but it will do the job. It just takes a lot more of it, and you have to boil it a lot longer.
The real value of red maple as a wilderness survival food lies in its seeds. Those winged helicopter seeds (technically called samaras) that we all played with as kids are not only edible, they taste decent and are highly nutritious. The can be eaten raw or cooked – to prepare, break off their wing, and carefully shell the seed out of its husk. They can be boiled like lentils, roasted like pumpkin seeds, or added to soups. They’re tiny and it takes a lot to make a meal, but thankfully, red maples deliver. A single fully grown tree can shed pounds of seeds in a spring. The flavor varies depending on habitat and soil chemistry, but they usually don’t taste too bad. The ones in my woods have a slightly nutty, mildly astringent flavor. Sometimes the seeds are sweet, sometimes they’re bitter. If they’re too bitter for your liking, treat them like you would acorns and boil off the tannins. Maple seeds are high in carbohydrates, as well as fats including Omega-3, 6, and 9 fatty acids. Most importantly for us, they’re 27.5% protein. As we’ve said many times before, high-protein, high-fat plant foods are one of your best options for staying alive in a survival situation.
Young maple leaves are also edible. They’re one of the mildest-flavored tree leaves and have an almost sweet flavor. Their nutritional value is low, but they do contain some carbohydrates and vitamin C. Keep in mind, however, that they are toxic to horses.
For year-round edibility, the inner bark is your go-to. Due to maple’s relatively higher sugar content, it is a little more palatable than most tree bark. Certainly better than oak bark. To harvest, cut a strip of the bark off and peel off the inner cambium layer – the living layer between the outer bark and the wood. It can be cut into strips and boiled or roasted, or dried and pounded into a nutritious flour like the Cherokees did it.
Medicinally, the inner bark has several uses. Internally, a decoction made from it has traditionally been used as a cure for dysentery, diarrhea and other stomach ailments. It also is known to relieve muscle and joint pain when brewed into a tea. Externally, the tea was used as a traditional treatment for eye infections such as conjunctivitis.
Red maple has traditionally played second string to its supposedly more desirable cousins sugar maple and silver maple. Some have even gone so far as to call it a trash tree along the lines of sweetgum (seriously?). But as we’ve seen today, that’s an unjustified view. Red maple is a jack of all trades and a master of none – it may not be the best tree for any particular use, but it is a common, reliable stand-in for a variety of woodland applications. It is edible, medicinal, burnable, buildable, and syrup-able. (Is that even a word?) Regardless, it’s a tree worth knowing and worth using.
Are you a fan of #WildEdibleWednesday? Would you like to get a screamin’ deal on some quality hands-on knowledge, and walk away with a first-class herbal first aid kit? Then join us for Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft: Plant Medicine on Sunday, April 29th from 2-7pm! Register now at www.sarcraft.com/sunday-afternoon-bushcraft!