Maples are one of the earliest trees to bloom in our area -- a sure sign of spring. But not many people see them...they're up high, and they're not super-showy. When the light hits it right, though, the entire crown of a maple tree in flower will light up in red or yellow. So, as you're walking around this week, look up for something like this:
Maple flowers are insect-pollinated, and an important early-season source of food for insects. As the weather warms up enough for the bees and other pollinators to get active, there's not a lot else going on for them besides the maples.
The maples can take it -- they bloom so profusely, the squirrels hardly make a dent. Each one of the female flowers that gets pollinated will form one of those helicopter-like seed pods (technically, samaras) that fall down in the spring. Many years, our neighbor's samaras carpet our yard. The squirrels eat those too. And then what seems like a million baby maple trees still come up from the leftovers.
(Apparently I might not be exaggerating -- the Forest Service says a 12-inch diameter red maple can produce a million seeds. And our neighbor's tree is probably 3 times that wide.)
The male flowers are a little fluffier looking, due to all their pollen-producing stamens.
Female flowers are a little more sedate, waiting for that pollen to come their way. But they still have their own frills.
Plant geek bonus points: Many maple trees have only male or only female flowers. Some have both male and female flowers -- but usually on different branches. If you come across a maple tree with accessible branches, can you tell whether it's male, female, or monoecious?
The rest of us will just appreciate the fact that there are flowers to look at this early in the year.