Looking Out My Back Door

January 24, 2024
Red maple branch with tiny red buds on it.

By Elaine Sugawara for the January 24, 2024 issue of Now in Nature.

It’s January. Looking out of my back door the last few days, I haven’t seen much. It has been so bitterly cold but today, the weather is much warmer. The birds were making such a ruckus that I went outside to investigate. What sounded like a thousand sparrows were enjoying the warmish air too.

As I stood in the sunshine, I looked up, noticing the big red maple tree in my neighbor's yard. This tree must be at least 40 feet tall and several feet in diameter. The birds like to swing by my bird feeder, grab a sunflower seed, then fly up to the safety of this tree, but that’s not what caught my attention today.

The twigs all have buds—so many buds. The leaves are gone now, but that tree has plans! Big plans to make more leaves and more flowers.

I wondered, why the buds are showing now—why aren’t they freezing? It seems the tree is pretty smart. It forms the buds in the fall when it has enough resources like food and light. During the winter, the tree reduces the water inside the bud, in order for the bud not to freeze. Brilliant!

Red Maples are early bloomers. In Ohio, you can start seeing buds in late January or early February. Now I know why I noticed them. The buds are much bigger than they were in December.

During this same period, sap begins to flow inside the maple tree. Yum, maple syrup! Sugar maples get all the applause for this sweet treat, but other maples can be used for syrup as well, including the red maple. It takes about 40 gallons of sugar maple sap to make one gallon of syrup. Because red maples have a lower sugar content, it takes more sap to make that same gallon.

Just when it seems winter will never end, the maples give us hope. As we round the corner after winter solstice, the days are now growing longer and the sap, red or sugar, is a sure sign that spring is on its way.