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Sugar Maples in Yosemite

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Have you ever traveled to New England in the fall to view the “colors?” October 15th is generally considered the height of the season…although it varies from year to year. It´s a sight you won´t forget.

The forests and woods display brilliant hues of yellow, orange and red as the days grow shorter and the nights colder. Perhaps the tree most responsible for the scarlet show is the sugar maple, Acer saccharum, native to eastern North America. Not only is it the star of the autumnal visual feast, the tree is tapped for maple syrup and the hard wood is favored for bowling alleys and basketball courts, among other uses.

New Englanders are passionate about their sugar maples. I consider myself a New Englander; I was born in Massachusetts and lived in up-state New York during the l960s. Recently I was browsing through the summer 2007 Yosemite Association quarterly when I learned that there were once two sugar maples in Yosemite National Park, located near the Yosemite Chapel. That got my attention. After talking with Linda Eade, Research Librarian at Yosemite, I learned that these non-native trees were planted in 1903 near the Julius Boysen photography studio in the old village. It isn´t clear if they were planted from seed or by tiny saplings carried by hardy pioneers across the continent from New England. One unconfirmed story says that the Washburns, who owned the Wawona Hotel in the early days, brought the tiny trees from Vermont. Only one tree remains today, and it is positioned near the Yosemite Chapel, the only building remaining from the original old village. Ms. Eade says the color will be early this year, because of the low water, so I plan to drive over some day soon to see the tree. Could it possibly perform as it does in the East? I can´t wait to see it.

Now I won´t deny that our Chinese pistache, P. chinensis, makes a spectacular showing when it turns red as winter approaches. If you could magnify our local display 100 times over, you´d have a scene reminiscent of New England´s. It´s just a matter of scale.

I came across the colorful writings of Shirley Sargent, a life-long resident of the park, in my search for information about the sugar maples of Yosemite. Of her many books, “Enchanted Childhoods: Growing up in Yosemite l864 – 1945” is one of the most interesting. It relates not only her own childhood but that of many other early settlers in that part of Tuolumne County. It makes for good reading, and our county library has copies of many of her books.

Master gardeners talk about trees all the time. We note the new trees getting started along the Highway 108 bypass, we recognize the trees and underbrush that need thinning within our forests as promoted by the FireSafe Council, we are reminded that our native oaks need no water during the summer, and we have appreciated our crepe myrtles, Lagerstroemia indica, which give great color to our downtown in late summer.

And speaking of local color, the western or Pacific dogwoods, Cornus nuttallii, are beginning to take on their soft rosy glow. In a few weeks, their color will range from pale rose to deep, dark red. The Chinese pistache around Sonora are beginning to show some leaf coloration as the days become shorter and the nights cooler. And of course, at the higher elevations it will soon be time for the beautiful golden display that the quaking aspens, Populus tremuloides, put on every year.

Trees figure large in our rural environment. Notice them all around us; appreciate them for all the services—aesthetic, as well as practical—they provide, and care for yours properly.

Joan Bergsund, master gardener, has native oaks and Ponderosa pines on her property. She has added three Western redbuds, and two olive trees.