If you live in the Atlanta area, chances are that you can step outside right now and find a red maple. Red maples are one of the first hardwood trees to start flowering in the spring, and they are easy to spot at this time of year because they take on a beautiful reddish orange color that stands out against the bare branches of the other trees.
I had never really thought about the idea that trees could flower. After all, they are trees! A few years back, when I first started noticing that some of the trees outside had a reddish color before their leaves came in, I wondered if the red I was seeing was just the color of the maple's leaf buds. The leaves of many trees are tinged with red when they first open to protect the developing leaf from stress and sunlight, so it seemed like a logical guess.
But on closer inspection, I noticed that the red color of these trees was indeed coming from flowers. In the photo below you can see that the little buds even have stamens tipped with pollen.
I love to photograph red maple flowers because they have such interesting details and texture, and they are a nice reminder that spring is just around the corner with more vibrant colors.
While I was out shooting red maples this year, I noticed for the first time that one of the trees had different-looking blossoms from the others. I grabbed my phone and used an ID app to confirm that the tree was actually a red maple, thinking I might have been mistaken about what it was.
But the tree checked out as a red maple, so I decided to do some research on why the flowers looked different from the others I had seen before.
What I learned is that the majority of red maple trees have a dominant gender, male or female, and this accounts for the differences in their flowers. Up until this year the flowers I had seen on red maples had all been male, so I assumed that all maple flowers looked like that. Turns out I had been missing half of the picture. Photography teaches me something new all the time!
Fun fact: Although red maples are typically either male or female (dioecious), sometimes both male and female flowers can be found on different parts of the same tree. When this happens, the tree is said to be monoecious rather than dioecious.
When the female flowers are pollinated, they turn into fruit called samaras, which are winged seeds that many people recognize as "helicopters."
And in the fall, red maples put on another beautiful show of red before they lose their leaves for winter. They are also an important part of the ecosystem, serving as a source of food and shelter to various species of birds, mammals, and insects. What beautiful, useful trees!